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Robert A. Maddox, Kenneth W. Howard, and Charles L. Dempsey


On 20/21 August 1993, deep convective storms occurred across much of Arizona, except for the southwestern quarter of the state. Several storms were quite severe, producing downbursts and extensive wind damage in the greater Phoenix area during the late afternoon and evening. The most severe convective storms occurred from 0000 to 0230 UTC 21 August and were noteworthy in that, except for the first reported severe thunderstorm, there was almost no cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning observed during their life cycles. Other intense storms on this day, particularly early storms to the south of Phoenix and those occurring over mountainous terrain to the north and east of Phoenix, were prolific producers of CG lightning. Radar data for an 8-h period (2000 UTC 20 August–0400 UTC 21 August) indicated that 88 convective cells having maximum reflectivities greater than 55 dBZ and persisting longer than 25 min occurred within a 200-km range of Phoenix. Of these cells, 30 were identified as “low-lightning” storms, that is, cells having three or fewer detected CG strikes during their entire radar-detected life cycle. The region within which the low-lightning storms were occurring spread to the north and east during the analysis period.

Examination of the reflectivity structure of the storms using operational Doppler radar data from Phoenix, and of the supportive environment using upper-air sounding data taken at Luke Air Force Base just northwest of Phoenix, revealed no apparent physical reasons for the distinct difference in observed cloud-to-ground lightning character between the storms in and to the west of the immediate Phoenix area versus those to the north, east, and south. However, the radar data do reveal that several extensive clouds of chaff initiated over flight-restricted military ranges to the southwest of Phoenix. The prevailing flow advected the chaff clouds to the north and east. Convective storms that occurred in the area likely affected by the dispersing chaff clouds were characterized by little or no CG lightning.

Field studies in the 1970s demonstrated that chaff injected into building thunderstorms markedly decreased CG lightning strikes. There are no data available regarding either the in-cloud lightning character of storms on this day or the technical specifications of the chaff being used in military aircraft anti–electronic warfare systems. However, it is hypothesized that this case of severe, but low-lightning, convective storms resulted from inadvertent lightning suppression over south-central Arizona due to an extended period of numerous chaff releases over the military ranges.

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