Lightning strikes Fatih Mosque over the Istanbul skyline during a thunderstorm on May 7, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey.

  • Superbolts are lightning bolts that release over 1 million Joules of electric energy - that's 1,000 times more than an average bolt, according to a recent study.
  • Unlike regular lightning, superbolts are more likely to appear over the ocean instead of land, and in winter months instead of spring or summer.
  • A large number of superbolts appeared in 2013 and 2014, which aligned with the peak of the solar cycle.
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An average lightning bolt strikes land with thousands of joules of energy, but that's tiny in comparison to some bolts that flash over the ocean.

Superbolts are a type of lightning that releases at least 1 million joules of electrical energy - more than 1,000 times the power of regular lightning. They appear over the sea, far from where lightning is typically expected to strike.

A study published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research maps where and when these potent strikes appear. The results suggest superbolts are more likely to form over the Mediterranean Sea, the Andes mountains, and the eastern North Atlantic ocean.

"The places where we see these superbolts aren't even close to the usual lightning hot spots," Bob Holzworth, a professor at the University of Washington who led the study, told Business Insider.

Holzworth manages the World Wide Lightning Location Network, which detects lightning strikes across the world. He's has been tracking data on lightning for nearly two decades. For the new study, Holzworth investigated 2 billion lightning strikes that took place between 2010 and 2018. Only 8,000, or four-millionths of a percent, of those bolts qualified as a superbolt.

Superbolts are not like regular lightning

Holzworth said regular lightning strikes follow several predictable patterns. First, most strikes occur in three main areas, called "chimney regions": the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Indonesia. In the United States, spring and summer are the primary seasons for thunderstorms, since storms need hot air and moisture to develop. Normal lightning also strikes over land about 10 times more often than over oceans.

But superbolts don't adhere to any of those rules. Instead, these giant lightning bolts often strike over oceans, and they are most likely to appear from November to February. According to The New York Times, this seasonal difference could be due to a process in which warm ocean currents create strong convection with cold air.

Mysteries about these energetic bolts remain

The term superbolt was first coined in the 1970s by Air Force captain Bobby N. Turman. Holzworth's research has advanced scientists' understanding of this lightning since then, but the reasons why superbolts appear in different places and during different seasons than regular lightning are still a mystery.

Scientists have been studying a potential relationship between cosmic rays and lightning, but have not been able to figure out whether they're connected.

Holzworth's new study revealed an exciting new piece of the puzzle, though: He found that a higher number of superbolts formed in 2014 and 2013, which was the same time as the last peak in the solar cycle. The sun's magnetic field flips in its 11-year cycle, and at the peak, the sun pushes out the most cosmic rays.

However, the study only looked at lightning strikes over nine years, so more research is needed to determine whether these two factors were correlated.

Going forward, Holzworth wants to travel to a location where superbolts occur - now that he's figured out where that is - to observe the lightning in person.

"Maybe we will learn some more physics of how these strokes may or may not be different from other lightning strokes," he said.

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