What is Supercell Lightning

The thunderstorms that produce supercell lightnings are loners, if one was to personify them. While other forms of lightning clouds can be found in the same storm system, supercells have a tendency to form in areas several miles from the main storm front. They’re rare and can be found in a few isolated areas of the United States and Australia; however, they have the potential to be the most dangerous. Also, if the situations are right, they can strike almost anywhere.

This particular system gets its name for good reasons: it produces hail, torrential rainfall, strong winds, and substantial downbursts. On top of that, it is one of several types of clouds that can spawn tornadoes. And, they can come in numerous sizes and distinguish itself from other systems by their large-scale appearance and ability to dominate local climate up to 20 miles away.

The damage they bring can be devastating. According to the website UCAR (University Corporation for Atmosphere Research),  a June 1995 storm swept across the West Texas Panhandle, producing several supercells, and tornados – with two reaching F4 strength. The system caused extensive damage to Dimmitt and Friona, Texas, and even stripped pavement from the local highways (UCAR, 2010). In another case, a storm with supercells produced baseball hails east of Carnegie, Oklahoma which caused extensive damage to cars, homes and businesses. Another system dumped 2-inch hail onto Chaparral, New Mexico in 2004; it too cause wide-spread damage.

Supercell is one of four classifications for thunderstorms. The others are squall line, multi-cell, and single-cell.  It is characterized by a deep, continuously-rotating updraft known as a mesocyclone. It is within this mesocyclone that tornados can be spawned.

Another distinction of supercell is its appearance. While most thunderstorms are similar in form, the supercell – according to the National Weather Service (NWS) – will include a rain-free base (with or without a wall cloud), tail cloud, flanking line, overshooting top and back-sheared anvil. These are usually observed in or near the southwest portion of the storm (NWS, 2010).

[To view a picture of it, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chaparral_Supercell_2.JPG]

It is also a longer lasting storm system. Due to its ability to move slowly and to last for hours, some have dubbed the supercell as a “quasi-steady-state” storm.

Another feature of a supercell puts it in conflict with the winds created by a storm. It has the capability to deviate from the mean winds (or main environmental winds). Often they travel or rotate to the right of the main winds, thus being categorized as a “right-mover” (NWS, 2010). Still, it also has the ability to move to the left of that wind (called left-movers). They can also develop two separate updrafts with opposing rotations, which splits the storm into two supercells. (Answers, 2010).

There are two types of supercell thunderstorms. There’s the Low Precipitation (LP) and the High Precipitation storm. Arid climates such as the high plains of the United States will experience a LP supercell. Regions with moist or wet climates will experience the HP supercell. Although most reported cases of supercells are documented in Western and Midwestern America, there are cases of it hitting places such as England and parts of Europe. The country with frequent supercells is Eastern Australia.

Supercell is by far the rarest of thunderstorms. Still, it doesn’t mean it’s the least harmful. These storms are much more concentrated and can pack a vicious punch. If one sees these massive rotating clouds, it’s best to take cover. Its lightning strikes are only part of what it has to offer.



“Mean Wind (retrieved 2010):” Mimi.hu: http://en.mimi.hu/meteorology/mean_wind.html

“Supercell Lightning Simulations (retrieved 2010)”: UCAR.edu. http://www.vets.ucar.edu/vg/SuperCell/index.shtml

 “Supercell (retrieved 2010)”: Absolute Astronomy: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Supercell

“Supercell (retrieved 2010)”:Answer.com: http://www.answers.com/topic/supercell


NOAA, National Weather Service (retrieved 2010); “Jet Stream –Online School for Weather”: Weather.gov: http://www.srh.weather.gov/srh/jetstream/append/glossary_s.htm