Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Not All Lightning Is Created Equal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Not All Lightning Is Created Equal

Article excerpt

To most people, lightning is a mysterious, awe-inspiring spectacle to admire from a distance. To meteorologists and atmospheric scientists, these bursts of electricity are something to look at closely.

New research presented last month at the International Conference on Atmospheric Electricity in Guntersville, Ala., shows lightning provides an important part to understanding, and possibly predicting, severe weather, such as hail storms and tornadoes.

"Lightning is just another piece of the severe-weather puzzle," says Richard Blakeslee, one of the lightning scientists at the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Guntersville. "It can provide a lot of information on the type of precipitation that is coming from a thunderstorm."

The GHCC team found that sudden increases in lightning flash rates may be precursors to tornadoes. In spring 1995, the Optical Transient Detector (OTD), a satellite lightning sensor orbiting Earth, captured images of lightning intensifying minutes before a tornado dropped out of a storm over Oklahoma.

The theory is that strong upward convection, the transfer of heat from one part of a cloud to another, results in high lightning rates. When convection plummets, lightning flashes sharply decrease and downward-moving air currents take over, setting the stage for tornadoes.

Much of lightning research has focused on cloud-to-ground lightning, which makes up only 25 percent of total lightning. Most lightning actually occurs inside thunderstorm clouds, making it difficult to study.

"For forecasting and nowcasting, we need to know what goes on inside of clouds," Dr. Blakeslee says. "Nowcasting" is a term used by meteorologists to calculate weather conditions in real time. For example, following what's happening in a storm, second-by-second.

In the last 10 years, sophisticated technology has led to a shift in the way scientists study and measure lightning. The most recent development has been the placement of lightning sensors in space to observe the atmosphere. …

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