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Damaging lightning not unusual this time of year 

A bolt of lightning illuminates the early evening

A bolt of lightning illuminates the early evening sky over Manorville on Tuesday.  Credit: LiHotShots/LiHotShots

As a line of strong thunderstorms rolled through Long Island Tuesday night, hundreds of lightning bolts streaked through the sky.

Dazzling in their brilliance, the electric charges  — caused when water and ice collide in clouds  — wreaked havoc on the ground, setting fire to homes in Levittown, Uniondale and Plainview and an elementary school in Hempstead.. In New Hyde Park, a lightning strike set fire to a power substation, forcing the Long Island Rail Road to suspend service on three branches. Lightning contributed to more than 22,000 customers losing power on the Island and, according to the NYPD, three men were struck by lightning in Queens.

But while Tuesday’s wild weather may have caused more damage than usual, experts say so much lightning was not uncommon for this time of year. 

“It was very humid and the necessary ingredients were there to create an intense thunderstorm,” said Kristen Corbosiero, associate professor of atmospheric science at SUNY University at Albany.

In August, storms often produce lightning because of the warmer temperatures  — a characteristic of storms that begin with clouds at high elevations, according to the National Weather Service. The clouds that caused Tuesday night’s storms reached a height of 50,000 feet in the atmosphere, said David Wally of the weather service.

According to Corbosiero, clouds grow vertically, reaching different atmospheric levels. As water and ice in tall clouds collide, they create an electric charge. Those charges eventually become lighting.

Long Island’s location, sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound, generally helps ward off such brutal storms, Wally said.

“Often in the spring and early summer, storms, they weaken before hitting the Island because of the cool marine   waters,” he said.

But an unstable air mass and the late summer’s humid temperatures contributed to Tuesday’s intense thunderstorms, during which — at the peak of activity between 7 and 9:30 p.m.  — lightning detection systems at Long Island MacArthur Airport measured over 500 lightning strikes within one one-minute period, according to the weather service.

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