Millions of people who work or play outdoors might one day soon have a new tool to help them reduce the risk of being struck by lightning.
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.
"One of our major goals is to increase the lead time that forecasters have for predicting which clouds are most likely to produce lightning and when lightning will start," said John Mecikalski, one of the project directors and an associate professor in UAH's Atmospheric Science Department. "If we can combine data from satellites, radar and models into a single lightning forecast system, we can give the National Weather Service and other meteorologists a new tool to support forecasts."
In addition to work done at UAH and NASA, the new lightning nowcasting project will use information developed by researchers at several institutions, Mecikalski said.
By merging the satellite and radar systems with numerical models, the UAH team hopes to create an end-to-end lightning forecast system that can track a storm cell and its lightning from the first signs of rapid cloud growth all the way through its collapse.
During the past 30 years, lightning has killed about 50 people in the U.S. each year, making it the country's third most common cause of weather-related fatalities (behind floods and tornadoes) during that time. It is estimated that lightning also injures about 500 people in the U.S. each year, although many lightning injuries go unreported.