Virginia's lightning strikes are concentrated east of the Blue Ridge, in the southern Piedmont and Coastal Plain
Source: National Weather Service, Virginia Thunderstorms and Lightning, 1989
Most lightning in Virginia is associated with the 35-45 thunderstorms that occur each summer. Lightning and thunder are common in July and August, but "thundersnows" are possible in January as well.
The biggest storms, hurricanes, rarely generate lightning:1
lightning is most common in central Africa, and least common at the North/South poles
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NASA Researchers Explore Lightning's NOx-ious Impact on Pollution, Climate
Lightning is an electric channel that rebalances the negative charges in the atmosphere with positive charges from the ground. As cumulonimbus clouds form, positive electrical charges accumulate on the small particles or ice and water that are lifted up into the tops of clouds. Negative charges accumulate on the larger particles at the bottom of the clouds.
A lightning stroke starts with a negatively-charged "leader" stretching from the sky towards the ground. The negatively-charged leader stimulates a positively-charged "streamer" up from the ground.
When the two link 100-300 feet above the ground, negative ions start down the leaders but are quickly overwhelmed by a surge of positively charged ions flowing up the streamer. The initial "flash" from cloud-to-ground is followed immediately by a return flash from the ground to the sky, a distinction that can bw. The two together trigger the discharge of electrical energy known as a lightning "strike."
lightning starts when electrical charges in a cloud separate into a top with a positive charge and a bottom with a negative charge, and then a negatively-charged "leader" from the cloud meets a positively-charged "streamer" from the ground
Source: National Weather Service, How Lightning is Created
Because the upward flash of a streamer is most intense, thunder starts at ground level. The light of the flash travels through the atmosphere five times faster than the sound of the thunder. If an observer can count "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi" before hearing the rumble of thunder, the lightning strike was about one mile away.
According to the National Weather Service:2
sequence of a lightning strike: 1) a negatively-charged leader from the cloud stimulates 2) a positively-charged streamer to move up from the ground, and 3) the return flash from ground to sky creates the bright light that people see as a lightning bolt
Source: National Weather Service Lightning
Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion lightning flashes annually. On average, Virginia gets 300,000 cloud-to-ground lightning flashes.3
About 5% of lightning strikes are "positive," connecting the tops of the clouds with the ground. Such strikes can be the "bolt out of the blue," hitting the ground far from any obvious storm cloud. The occasional positive lightning strike is usually more powerful than the normal lightning bolt, and may be the cause of many electrical blackouts and forest fires.4
In 2011, lightning triggered the Lateral West Fire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The fire burned over 6,000 acres. The standard approach for fighting fire at the refuge is to flood the swamp, pumping water into the ditches and drowning the fire. However, even the massive 12-inch rainfall from Hurricane Irene a month later could not penetrate the peat soil and completely extinguish the Lateral West Fire.
lightning strikes triggered the Lateral West Fire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which burned hot enough to create at least one fire tornado
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, A tool to hunt fires in the Great Dismal Swamp?
Lightning strikes people as well as power lines, trees and swamps. On average, 1-2 people in Virginia are killed by lightning each year, and most lightning deaths in the United States are "males between the ages of 20 and 40 years old who were caught outdoors on ballfields, near open water, or under trees."5
In 1968, while Governor Godwin was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, his daughter was killed by a lightning strike at Camp Pendleton (the "Camp David" for Virginia's top officials, in the southern part of the City of Virginia Beach). The sky was clear as the 14-year old stepped out of the surf; the only clouds were part of a thunderstorm offshore. The governor's daughter was the victim of a positive lightning strike, from the positively-charged top of a cloud.6
One ranger at Shenandoah National Park, Roy Sullivan, holds an apparent world record for surviving seven separate lightning strikes between 1942 and 1977. He finally died in 1983, not from direct effects of a lightning strike but by suicide.7
Virginia is not in the top 10 states for lightning fatalities
Source: National Weather Service, Lightning Fatalities by State, 1959-2015
when population is considered, western states have higher fatality rates - and Virginia drops even lower in the rankings for lightning fatalities
Source: National Weather Service, Lightning Fatalities Weighted by Population by State, 1959-2015
1. "A quick bolt of lightning can trigger blazes lasting months," The Virginian-Pilot, September 6, 2011, http://hamptonroads.com/node/613163 (last checked September 17, 2016)
2. "Virginia Thunderstorms and Lightning," National Weather Service, http://www.erh.noaa.gov/lwx/lightning/va-lightning.htm; NASA, "Where Lightning Strikes," http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast05dec_1/ (last checked September 18, 2011)
3. "NASA Researchers Explore Lightning's NOx-ious Impact on Pollution, Climate," National Aeronautics and Space Administration, October 22, 2009, http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/nox_lightning.html; "Number of Cloud-To-Ground Flashes by State from 2006 to 2015," Vaisala, February 2016, http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/stats/06-15_Flashes_flash_Density_State.pdf (last checked September 17, 2016)
4. "The Positive and Negative Side of Lightning," National Weather Service, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jetstream/lightning/positive.htm (last checked September 18, 2011)
5. "Virginia Thunderstorms and Lightning," National Weather Service, http://www.erh.noaa.gov/lwx/lightning/va-lightning.htm (last checked September 18, 2011)
6. "Lightning Hits Daughter of Governor Godwin," Chicago Tribune, Section 1a, p.10, August 26, 1968, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1968/08/26/page/38/article/lightning-hits-daughter-of-gov-godwin (last checked September 17, 2016)
7. "Shenandoah National Park Ranger Roy Sullivan Set the World Record for Being Hit by Lightning," National Parks Traveller, http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/08/shenandoah-national-park-ranger-roy-sullivan-set-world-record-being-hit-lightning (last checked September 18, 2011)