Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires

Living Edition
| Editors: Samuel L. Manzello

Dry Thunderstorms

  • Nicholas J. NauslarEmail author
  • Benjamin J. Hatchett
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51727-8_176-1



Dry thunderstorms are defined as cumulonimbus clouds that produce cloud-to-ground lightning strikes with little to no precipitation reaching the ground. The “dry” in dry thunderstorms is relative as there is no standardized threshold for precipitation accumulation to classify a thunderstorm as being “dry.” The National Weather Service and peer-reviewed literature often use <2.5 mm (0.1 in.) and occasionally <6.35 mm (0.25 in.) to delineate dry thunderstorms Storm Prediction Center (SPC) (Nauslar et al. 2013).


Dry thunderstorms, also referred to as dry lightning, produce cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning with little to no rainfall reaching the surface. While there is no fundamental difference between how typical thunderstorms and dry thunderstorms form, the distinction arises from the environments they develop in and the resultant precipitation totals. Dry thunderstorms form in environments that have marginally sufficient moisture and instability to support cumulonimbus development despite dry land surface and boundary layer conditions. Such marginal conditions make dry thunderstorms difficult to forecast given the uncertainty regarding convective initiation and storm coverage, especially at lead times of multiple days.

All thunderstorms are important to fire management during fire season, but dry thunderstorms carry extra significance given their predilection for igniting wildfires (e.g., Fuquay et al. 1979; Nauslar et al. 2013). Larger dry thunderstorm events where lightning is spread over a wide region (i.e., dry lightning busts (Nauslar et al. 2013)), have acute impacts on fire management, especially with regards to fire suppression efforts. These impacts underscore the importance of dry thunderstorms to the fire community. Dry thunderstorms, especially with implications to fire suppression, occur most often in western North America and Australia, although they can occur anywhere within the mid-latitudes (e.g., Rorig and Ferguson 1999; Changnon 2001; Kuleshov et al. 2002; Amatulli et al. 2007; Ganteaume et al. 2013; Associated Press 2017)

Dry Thunderstorm Development

Thunderstorms and dry thunderstorms develop similarly through deep, moist convective processes. A parcel is lifted to the level of free convection (LFC) and realizes instability, and under conditions where sufficient atmospheric moisture exist, moist convection occurs. Enough instability must be present above the freezing level to allow vertical cloud development to encompass the main charging zone region (−10 °C to −20 °C) (Houze 1993; MacGorman and Rust 1998). Therefore, an LFC below the freezing level and an equilibrium level (i.e., level of neutral buoyancy) above the height of the −20 °C isotherm increases the likelihood for cloud electrification and thunderstorm development (Houze 1993; MacGorman and Rust 1998). The presence of convective available potential energy (CAPE) indicates positive buoyancy and the possibility of thunderstorm development if a lifted parcel becomes unstable.

As previously noted, the main difference between dry thunderstorms and typical thunderstorms is the environment that dry thunderstorms develop in. Dry thunderstorms often form in an environment that is marginally conducive for thunderstorms, typically on the fringes of the deepest moisture and strongest buoyancy and forcing for ascent (Nauslar et al. 2013). Mid-tropospheric moisture moving over a hot, dry, and well-mixed boundary layer creates a favored scenario for dry thunderstorm development (Fig. 1) (e.g., Hall 2007; Wallmann et al. 2010; Nauslar et al. 2013). During that scenario, temperature and dewpoint traces on the atmospheric sounding profile form an “inverted-V” (Fig. 1), illustrating a well-mixed, hot, and dry boundary layer with sufficient mid-tropospheric (700–500 hPa) moisture. High cloud bases are typical of dry thunderstorms with lifting condensation levels (LCLs) often ≥ 2500 m above ground level (AGL) with some instability (i.e., CAPE) in the middle troposphere. Boundary-layer circulations deepen as insolation increases and begin to lift parcels to the LCL and LFC resulting in thunderstorms. These circulations are augmented when topography is present as orographic lifting enhances thermal circulations with more parcels able to reach the LFC (e.g., Cotton et al. 1983; Tripoli and Cotton 1989). Synoptically-driven dynamical lifting associated with mid- and upper-tropospheric troughs can produce elevated convection (i.e., lifted parcels not originating from/near the surface) resulting in dry thunderstorm development (Favors and Abatzoglou 2013). Elevated thunderstorms during the warm season are often high-based and do not rely on diurnal circulations to generate vertical motions. This can lead to dry thunderstorms including nocturnal dry thunderstorms as elevated convection develops over a dry, stable boundary layer.
Fig. 1

(a) Typical atmospheric sounding profile characteristic of dry thunderstorms; (b) and (c) vertical and planar schematics depicting an environment conducive for dry thunderstorms across the western United States

During the warm season across western North America, dry thunderstorms often form during the breakdown of the upper-tropospheric ridge, a known critical fire weather pattern (Werth et al. 2011; Nauslar et al. 2018. Deeper subtropical moisture associated with the North American Monsoon often stays along the southern periphery of the subtropical ridge over western North America where mid- and upper-tropospheric easterlies are present (e.g., Douglas et al. 1993; Higgins et al. 1997). Poleward moisture advection along the western edge of the ridge is common, but due to the complex terrain of the western CONUS, surface moisture advection often lags behind mid- and upper-tropospheric moisture advection (Fig. 1) (e.g., Carleton 1986; Favors and Abatzoglou 2013). The western and northern portions of the ridge are often favored for dry thunderstorm development as mid-tropospheric moisture streams over a hot, dry, and well-developed boundary layer (Favors and Abatzoglou 2013; Nauslar et al. 2013). As an upper-tropospheric trough approaches and interacts with the ridge, geopotential heights and temperatures aloft fall, which increases mid- and upper-tropospheric instability. As a result, the potential for thunderstorm development increases. Additionally, stronger mid- and upper-tropospheric winds increase storm motions (≥12 ms−1 (~25 knots)), which limits precipitation accumulation at any given location, increasing the likelihood of dry thunderstorm occurrence. Dry thunderstorms occur infrequently when compared to typical thunderstorms, but there is no established dry thunderstorm climatology.

Forecasting Dry Thunderstorms

There are existing forecasting methods that help identify dry thunderstorm potential (e.g., Rorig et al. 2007; Wallmann et al. 2010; Nauslar et al. 2013). Each forecast method examines a combination of moisture, lift, and instability. Rorig et al. (2007) utilized 850 hPa dewpoint depressions and 850 hPa to 500 hPa temperature differences in their discriminant algorithm to determine dry thunderstorm probabilities. Wallmann et al. (2010) describes what they call the dry lightning procedure (DLP). The DLP identifies possible lifting mechanisms (e.g., dynamic tropopause and 850–700-hPa layer equivalent potential temperature (θe)) and quantifies instability in the mid- and upper-troposphere (e.g., MUCAPE and 500–300 hPa lapse rates ≥7.5 °C) and potential thunderstorm coverage (e.g., High-Level Total Totals (Milne 2004)). Nauslar et al. (2013) advances the DLP by utilizing vertical atmospheric cross-sections with equivalent potential temperature θe and mixing ratio or relative humidity to identify mid-tropospheric potential instability (e.g., Schultz et al. 2000). Nauslar et al. (2013) also examined ageostrophic motions within upper-tropospheric jet structure including the formation of mesoscale jetlets, which locally increase upper-tropospheric divergence (e.g., Hamilton et al. 1998; Kaplan et al. 1998). The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center developed probabilistic dry thunderstorm guidance based on the North American Model and Global Forecast System model using a Perfect Prognosis technique (e.g., Bothwell 2009).

As with forecasting other types of impactful weather (e.g., severe weather), there are no set thresholds for variables or objective analyses that yield definitive answers on dry thunderstorm development. Fire meteorologists often use precipitable water thresholds between 10 and 20 mm (0.4–0.8 in.) as being favorable for dry thunderstorms, with any value lower than 10 mm unlikely to support deep, moist convection capable of producing CG lightning. Values above 20 mm indicate precipitation accumulation will likely exceed dry thunderstorm precipitation thresholds (2.5 or 6.35 mm). Additionally, various CAPE calculations (e.g., surface-based, mixed-layer, most unstable) and thresholds are utilized to ascertain convective and cloud electrification potential. Bright et al. (2005) theorized that ≥100 J/kg of CAPE in the mixed phase region through the charge reversal temperature zone (0 °C to −20 °C) is adequate for cumulonimbus electrification.

Impact on Wildfires

Dry thunderstorms can result in mass wildfire ignitions (i.e., lightning busts) that strain local, regional, and national firefighting resources. Dry thunderstorms are more efficient (i.e., CG lightning to wildfire ratio) in starting wildfires than typical thunderstorms, and fires ignited from dry thunderstorms are often more active initially as environments conducive for dry thunderstorms and fire spread are similar (e.g., Fuquay et al. 1979; Rorig and Ferguson 1999, 2002; Hall 2007). Strong thunderstorm outflow winds often develop from dry thunderstorms as downdrafts accelerate through evaporative cooling processes within the hot, dry, and unstable boundary-layer (i.e., downbursts, microbursts). Dry microbursts environments are characterized by mid-tropospheric moisture, a deep, dry adiabatic subcloud lapse rate, and low surface moisture, which are similar to dry thunderstorm environments (Wakimoto 1985). Microbursts occur when precipitation evaporates as it descends into a dry subcloud layer. As the air cools and becomes denser, it accelerates downward until it reaches the surface creating gusty and erratic winds (e.g., Fujita 1985; Wakimoto 1985). Strong thunderstorm outflow winds can create extreme and erratic fire behavior (e.g., Dude and Yarnell Hill fires) (Goens and Andrews 1998; ADFFM 2013).
Fig. 2

(a) Cloud-to-ground lightning (“x”, yellow) from 1200 UTC 20 June 2008–1200 UTC 22 June 2008 with cross-section transect (pink) for Fig. 3; (b) lightning ignited wildfires (“x” red) from 1200 UTC 20 June 2008–1200 UTC 24 June 2008

While dry thunderstorms are important to fire management concerns, thunderstorms over dry fuels also ignite wildfires and complicate wildfire suppression efforts. Once fuel regimes dominated by forests with dense canopies (e.g., Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies) fall below certain fuel moisture thresholds during the warm season, lightning, especially lightning followed by warm, dry, and windy conditions, can readily ignite wildfires with relative high efficiency (Wierzchowski et al. 2002; Evett et al. 2008; Ordóñez et al. 2012). Owing to this concern, some National Weather Service forecast offices issue Red Flag Warnings for abundant lightning over dry fuels (Hockenberry 2017). Red Flag Warnings for lightning are issued to alert firefighting personnel to the potential of widespread, numerous new ignitions (Hockenberry 2017). Densely forested areas at higher-latitudes and higher elevations, which have cold or temperate climates with warm and dry summers, are specifically susceptible (Köppen 1936; Conedera et al. 2006; Veraverbeke et al. 2017). Background climate conditions and weather during and after CG lightning play important roles in determining wildfire occurrence and spread (e.g., Bessie and Johnson 1995; Gedalof et al. 2005; Abatzoglou and Kolden 2013). A better meteorological understanding and predictive model for wildfires that includes weather and fuel information would immensely aid wildfire suppression strategy.

Case Study

On 20–21 June 2008, more than 5000 lightning strikes from dry thunderstorms resulted in more than 500 wildfires across northern California and portions of the northwest Great Basin (i.e., southeast Oregon and northwest Nevada) (Fig. 2) (Wallmann et al. 2010; Nauslar et al. 2013). A weak, mid-tropospheric shortwave trough moved over the area and helped increase instability via mid-tropospheric moisture and steeper mid-tropospheric lapse rates (e.g., Figs. 3 and 4 from Nauslar et al. 2013). However, the number of ignitions was unexpected as the coverage and CG lightning production from thunderstorms exceeded predicted amounts.
Fig. 3

(a) Vertical cross-section across northern California (see transect line in Fig. 2a) with equivalent potential temperature (contoured, pink), relative humidity (color-filled, %), and winds (barbs, knots); (b) Same as (a) but with mixing ratio (color-filled, g/kg)

Fig. 4

(a) North American Model (NAM) analysis sounding at 0600 UTC 21 June 2008 for Redding, CA; (b) NAM analysis sounding at 0000 UTC 21 June 2008 for Mt. Shasta, CA

Elevated moisture and instability over a dry lower-troposphere led to dry thunderstorm development across northern California (Fig. 3). Elevated thunderstorms continued overnight, thus de-coupled from any terrain or boundary layer circulations associated with insolation. However, deep boundary-layer mixing with orographic lift did aid in the development of dry thunderstorms during the event. The operational North American Model (NAM) 0000-0600 UTC 21 June 2008 analysis soundings across the region show little instability with all MUCAPE values below 400 J/kg across northern California (Fig. 4). Perhaps the most obvious signal for dry thunderstorm potential is evident in the NAM vertical cross-sections that show collocated mid-tropospheric moisture and instability (Fig. 3) (Nauslar et al. 2013). Storm motions were also estimated to be 12–20 ms−1 (25–40 knots), which further limited precipitation duration and totals. The vertical cross sections and model soundings depict elevated instability above a very dry lower-troposphere with fast storm motions, which is a prototypical dry thunderstorm structure (Figs. 3 and 4) (Wallmann et al. 2010).

Several hundred wildfires were ignited during this event, and these fires eventually burned more than 600,000 acres with the largest fires in northern California where fuels were the driest (Wallmann et al. 2010). These wildfires strained local, regional, and national fire suppression resources and caused smoke management issues across the region for several weeks. Wallmann et al. (2010) and Nauslar et al. (2013) provide a more comprehensive analysis of this event and detail forecast procedures that would have better predicted the event.


Dry thunderstorms are an important part of fire weather and greatly impact fire management and suppression. In the United States, lightning-ignited wildfires only account for 16% of all wildfires, but about half of the acres burned (Balch et al. 2017). While CG lightning from any thunderstorm can ignite wildfires, dry thunderstorms and the environment they typically form in are often more efficient for igniting and spreading wildfires. Dry thunderstorms are not unique to the United States or even North America as they occur in multiple regions across the world (e.g., portions of Australia and Europe).

The distinguishing characteristic of dry thunderstorms is the minimal amount of precipitation reaching the surface from the cumulonimbus cloud, which is product of the environment. Dry thunderstorms develop in three different regimes: (1) sufficient mid-tropospheric moisture above a dry, unstable boundary layer with strong insolation often aided by terrain circulations or a surface boundary (e.g., surface pressure trough, dryline); (2) a mid-tropospheric shortwave trough with mid-tropospheric moisture produces elevated convection over a dry boundary layer; and (3) a combination of the first two regimes.

Forecasting dry thunderstorms remains challenging given the marginal convective environment in which they develop. Wallmann et al. (2010) and Nauslar et al. (2013) detail dry thunderstorm forecasting techniques, while others rely on algorithms (e.g., Rorig et al. 2007; Bothwell 2008a,b, 2009). Many operational fire meteorologists rely heavily on experience and pattern recognition when forecasting dry thunderstorms and their impacts on wildfire ignition and spread. Research has demonstrated that lightning-ignited wildfires are a function of fuel conditions and atmospheric moisture (e.g., Wierzchowski et al. 2002; Evett et al. 2008; Ordóñez et al. 2012; Parisien et al. 2012). However, there needs to be a greater effort to translate research findings into operations while understanding the underlying difficulties of forecasting the intricate relationships among the contributing factors to wildfires. Examination of dry-thunderstorm research in an operational setting, similar to what is done for severe weather during the Spring Experiment in the Hazardous Weather Testbed (Clark et al. 2012), would help address current limitations in fire weather and dry thunderstorm forecasting.



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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NOAA/NWS/NCEP Storm Prediction CenterNormanUSA
  2. 2.Division of Atmospheric SciencesDesert Research InstituteRenoUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kuibin Zhou
    • 1
  1. 1.Nanjing Tech UniversityNanjingChina