Times Lapse of Lightning Hitting Aircraft at Gate

As you view this, a couple of points:  Note everyone backing away after the lightning bolt hits the tail. Of course, that is too late. Passenger airlines’ weather monitoring has deteriorated in recent years even as weather science’s ability to warn of this type of incident has improved.

Second, if you are in an aircraft struck by lighting, you’ll be fine.  They are designed to withstand lightning strikes. I was on a 737 enroute from Los Angeles to Denver and we were struck with no problems.

Record Low Number of Lightning Deaths in 2011

Out of the all the bad weather news in 2011, one notable success story emerges: lightning deaths were lowest in the 71-years of record keeping. Just 26 people were killed by lightning in 2011, which is amazing considering the frequency of violent severe weather outbreaks across the U.S.

Data from NOAA and story from the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. I do not have an explanation as to why — with so many violent thunderstorms this year — we had record low lightning deaths.

Let’s just be grateful and hope the progress continues.

Lightning Safety from Miss America Candidate

Thunderstorms are forecast along the Gulf Coast today and tomorrow, so this is timely. Please take this safety information to heart. It is presented by Miss Ohio, Ellen Bryan, who is participating in the Miss America Pageant this week.

My good friend Cat Taylor, the current Miss Prairie Rose, has a platform of getting weather radios into schools.

It is good to see these talented young women working to improve weather safety.

Good luck, Miss Ohio!

Lightning Can Be Just as Deadly in Winter

From AccuWeather, the white + symbols are the locations of cloud-to-ground lightning at 11am Central time. The darker colors are locations from the previous hour.

Raw lightning data from Vaisala

While people are not outdoors as often, the lightning itself is just as deadly in winter as it is in summer. Prepared accordingly when thunderstorms approach. 

Lightning and Tornadoes

Since at least 1955, meteorologists have periodically looked at whether there is a reliable correlation between tornadoes and lightning and whether lightning can be used to predict where tornadoes might occur.

Above is a video of lightning associated with the record tornado outbreak on April 27th. Here is the description from NOAA:

On April 25-28, 2011, a large outbreak of over 300 tornadoes wreaked havoc in much of the Southeast United States. It is listed by NOAA as the fourth deadliest outbreak in United States history, and as the year with the highest EF4 and EF5 tornadoes to date. (Read more about the events of April 27 here.) Due to intense updrafts inside tornado-forming supercell storms, the lightning that occurs within clouds that are high above the ground tends to increase and the cloud-to-ground lightning strikes tend to decrease before the tornado actually forms. Knowing that a storm has a rapid increase of in-cloud lightning activity is a warning sign of severe weather, such as tornadoes, and is used to predict the onset of such events. Currently, weather forecasters can make use of the SPoRT Lightning Mapping Array systems to measure lightning activity. SPoRT is also being used as a research and demonstration testbed for the future NOAA GOES-R satellite. When GOES-R launches in 2015, it will contain the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, a new instrument capable of monitoring total (in-cloud and cloud-to-ground) lightning over the entire U.S and adjacent oceans — a major advance over ground-based lightning detection systems that, like radar, are limited in coverage.

Imagine connecting the dots of a constellation of stars. The data visualized here are much like those stars, and represent 10,405,546 points that make up thousands of individual lightning bolts from the ground up to an altitude of 9 miles. Each frame of the animation shows all of the measured lightning points in a one minute interval, and the total time span of the animation is 24 hours, starting from 7:00 pm CDT on April 26th. Notice that the large clusters of data points are extremely dense and are located at higher altitudes. These points coincide with observations of almost no lightning ground strikes during severe weather. The storm bringing the largest set of tornadoes during Alabama’s deadliest tornado outbreak of all time begins around 40 seconds into the animation, including the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham EF5 and the Hackleburg/Madison EF5 tornadoes. A vertical rod marking Tuscaloosa has been added to provide a reference for the height of the lightning points.

I, too, have noticed that there is often a lack of cloud-to-ground lightning during major tornadoes such as during the 1991 Wichita-Andover tornado (one of the most photographed in history).

However, the Greensburg tornado had nearly continuous vivid lightning. We saw the “polarity” of the lightning flip from almost completely negative electrical charge to positive charge about the time the tornado touched down. Could the flip to positive charged-lightning be a signature of a major tornado?

So, I looked at the Joplin tornado, hoping to see a “signature” like Greensburg’s and … nothing. It stayed primarily negative the whole time.

My point is that, while I certainly support further research, there is little reason to be hopeful of a consistent lightning predictor for tornadoes in the near future.

So, How Well Does "Flash to Bang" Work?

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the “flash to bang” method of estimating the distance of lightning where you:

  1. Count the number of seconds starting when you see the flash
  2. Stop counting when you hear the thunder
  3. Divide the number of seconds by 5 = distance of the lightning in miles
So, how well does it work in real life?
We have a great thunderstorm in progress in Sedgwick County (see postings below), so I decided to test it on one of the more distant strikes (I know it works close-in).
Here is the timing:
and, here is what the lightning measurement said, 12 miles. Given the fact there was likely a split second lag between the sound and me starting the timing, the flash-to-bang estimate of 11 miles is in very good agreement with the measured 12 miles. 
I could clearly see with the naked eye a microburst with this part of the storm but it was too dark to photograph. Take a look at the TDWR, the strongest downburst of the evening!
Click to enlarge image. 
The radar is measuring winds up to 60 mph! 
It is well known that cloud-to-ground lightning is associated with downbursts and that is certainly the case tonight. 

Got an Anvil Crawler

A brief video that captures a lightning strike “crawling” horizontally along the underside of a thunderstorm’s cirrus anvil. On rare occasions, they can “crawl” more than 30 miles! This one goes by fast because of the narrow field of view of my video camera.

Why Was This Allowed to Occur?

(CNN) – A lightning strike Wednesday afternoon sent 77 Air Force ROTC cadets to hospitals in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, area, where they were all responsive and in stable condition, according to spokeswoman Maj. Deidre Musgrave of Camp Shelby.

The full story is here.

They may be responsive and stabilized but lightning strikes can cause lifelong disabilities. I’m horrified the military put cadets in that position.  The science of meteorology has progressed to the point where we can prevent this type of injury.

In case you are not aware, AccuWeather offers lightning warning services to business, government, and education markets. Please contact sales@accuweather.com  for more information.

Promising, and Not So Promising, Tornado Research

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article about tornado research in the wake of the recent storms.

In general, I’m in favor of meteorological research because better weather forecasts and warnings have a huge benefit to cost ratio.  This research, in some cases, performs a dual role in helping better understand climate. That said, research dollars are not infinite. So, I’m going to critique the projects mentioned in the article.  Keep in mind that the goal of the taxpayer-funded public relations and lobbying arms of these government laboratories is to pry more tax money from Congress. Most of them never met a research program they didn’t like, regardless of its real-world merits.

First of all, the premise of the article: “Better” warnings on April 27 in the South would have saved lives. Based on the evidence I have examined (more on that in a blog posting tomorrow), the forecasts and warnings of those storms were excellent. The loss of life was exaggerated in this case because of the extensive power failures 12 to 16 hours before the tornadoes arrived. The lack of power prevented people from receiving the warnings via TV, internet, etc. Improving warnings makes no difference if people cannot get them because the power is out.

Now, the areas where the interviewees want to perform more research, spend more money, or create new programs, in the order in which they appear in the article:

NOAA’s Budget Cut This Year
I believe this was unfortunate, but it had nothing to do with the loss of life on April 27. The warnings and forecasts were excellent.

WSR-74C radar used by NWS in Topeka.
I used one of these for more than 20 years and it could survey the atmosphere for
tornado detection every 20 to 30 seconds. 

Radars That Don’t Survey the Lower Atmosphere Often Enough to Detect Tornadoes
This part of the article is misleading. There is nothing inherent in the National Weather Service’s radars that prevent them from surveying the lower atmosphere much more frequently. That is software and it could be changed by modifying a few lines of code if the decision was made to do it.

In fact, up until the Doppler radars were installed from 1991 to 1996, radars surveyed the lower atmosphere every 20 to 30 seconds, which is plenty often to find tornadoes. The reason they don’t today is because the radars were part of a three agency program: NOAA, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Aviation Administration.  The latter two agencies wanted better coverage for aviation and, when the radars were installed, we thought they were going to be able to detect turbulence aloft. To do so, the radars spend a lot of time probing the upper atmosphere — not very useful for detecting tornadoes. So far, turbulence detection has not worked as anticipated. I believe there are compelling reasons, in tornado situations, to ditch the lengthy “volume scans” for aviation and run the radars so they survey the lower atmosphere more often.

That said, the current generation of radars is approaching twenty years old and will need to be replaced. I’m not sold on the article’s proposed solution of “phased array radars” because, at least so far, they present a picture that is more “blurry” than the existing radars. Detail is critical when trying to find tornadoes.

Something the article does not mention is “gap filling” radars. There are inexpensive current generation radars that could be put in areas where the current radar coverage is poor (northeast Missouri, for example). That would do more to save lives than phased array would at the current state of the art.

Better Computer Models and Vortex II
Needed and welcome!

Lightning Detection
There are good reasons to get better lightning data from both ground and satellite-based sensors, but it is not clear whether better tornado warnings are among them. Since at least 1955, meteorologists have been trying to figure out the link, if any, between lighting and tornadoes. While I have my ideas on the subject, they have not been tested in rigorous studies. This is worth pursuing.

Infrasonic (sound) Detection of Tornadoes
The theory is that, if a tornado made it to the ground without warning, we would “hear” the roar made by the tornado in contact with the ground so we could get a warning out for people downwind. This idea has been around since at least the 1970′s. It is not needed anymore due to the fact that in 1999 meteorologists discovered the “debris ball” radar signature. This signature will be more useful with the NWS’s new dual-polarization capability being installed at present in its existing radars.

A weather balloon. From top, the balloon, a parachute, and the
instrument package that measures the atmosphere.

Aircraft Weather Measurements
As noted, this is already being done and it is great if we can expand it. That said, it should never replace weather balloons. #1) An airplane might not be near the location when and where a measurement is needed. #2) The vertical measurements that can only be done by balloons are needed for climate studies.

Gorgeous Time-Lapse Video

This video is both breathtaking and it is reasonable length (1:28). It is of the supercell thunderstorm that produced the Mapleton, IA tornado at sunset before the tornado was born. I especially like the lightning time lapse in the latter half of the video. Enjoy.