Supported by a two-year research grant from NASA, scientists in the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville are combining data from weather satellites with Doppler radar and numerical models in a system that might warn which specific pop-up storm clouds are likely to produce lightning and when that lightning is likely to begin and end.
While there is no operational lightning forecast system using radar, researchers using the existing Doppler weather radar system can get lightning predictions right about 90 percent of the time, he said, but can only give about a ten to 15 minute lead time.
The average bolt of lightning is often four to five times hotter than the surface of the sun and can carry an electric charge between 30,000 and 300,000 amperes, which is well beyond the fractions of one ampere sufficient to kill a human being.
Given its properties, lightning is an obvious danger to life and property across the world. Between 1997 and 2011, the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) recorded an average of 23,165,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year.
As lightning kills over 50 people and injures more than 400 every year in the United States, NOAA embarked on a widely advertised lightning safety campaign, noted for its slogan "when thunder roars, go indoors!"
As the UAH press release noted, when they're able to do so, forecasters can only provide about 10-15 minutes worth of lead time between detecting a developing thunderstorm and the first strike of lightning. If successful, the new system under development could be "the next big thing" in meteorology and help improve warning times well beyond where they currently stand.
While it is currently hard to predict exactly where and when lightning will strike, numerous services exist to the public to help identify threats before they get too close.
Several websites offer free lightning data to the public, including Vaisala, which operates the NLDN. StrikeStarUS is an excellent site that allows users to view quality (free!) lightning data for slightly zoomed-in regions of the country. A joint project between New Mexico Tech and NASA provides lightning data for the Mid-Atlantic region centered around Washington DC (DCLMA), as well as areas in and around northern Alabama (NALMA). Weatherbug's smartphone app also includes a feature called "Spark" that provides information on the proximity of the nearest lightning to the user's current location.
While lightning is an awesome and incredible display of nature's fury and beauty, it's also incredibly dangerous when it strikes you or something nearby. Whether it's predicted or not, using your senses and following the advice of NOAA is always best during a storm: when thunder roars, go indoors.
[Image via Getty]