A complex of thunderstorms roared into Southern California on Tuesday night, unleashing a torrent of lightning bolts.
The National Weather Service office serving Los Angeles detected more than 16,000 lightning pulses, 2,000 cloud flashes and 1,000 cloud-to-ground strikes between southwest California and the area just offshore between 7 and 9 p.m.
The lightning eruption briefly knocked out the power at Los Angeles International Airport at three terminals. Separately, a strike on a Delta plane heading to Seattle forced it to return to the airport.
The Santa Barbara News-Press reported that the bolts ignited tree fires and blew out a power converter.
Lightning is uncommon in Southern California. “It’s relatively rare in this area. Because of the cold ocean temperatures, it gives us higher stability and it’s drier,” said Carol Smith, a meteorologist at the Weather Service.
Daniel Swain, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of California at Los Angeles, tweeted that it was the “most spectacular winter lightning display in recent memory.”
The thunderstorms formed ahead of a cold front advancing toward the West Coast. The Weather Service described a “warm conveyor” surging ahead of the front where moisture converged and the thunderstorms developed.
This warm conveyor was linked to a pipeline of tropical moisture extending west to Hawaii, also known as an atmospheric river or “the pineapple express."
“There was a fast jet and faster wind speeds moving along the flow,” Smith said. She explained that the speedy high-altitude winds created “dramatic dynamics” and “strong instability” that sparked the lightning display.
The lightning-packed thunderstorms have subsided over Southern California, but the onslaught of tropical moisture continues streaming into the region. Moderate to heavy rains have triggered flooding and mud and rock slides, the Weather Service tweeted Wednesday morning.
It has been an unusually stormy and cold stretch for Southern California. Los Angeles logged 12 days with measurable rain in February and, for the first time on record, never hit 70 degrees during the month.
Here are more views of the lightning display: