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Lightning Increase Might Give Warning of Violent Weather Before Doppler Radar

The rapid jump in cloud-to-cloud lightning inside thunderstorm cells is related to horizontal rotation in a storm being tilted on-end upward inside a storm cell. The rapid jump in cloud-to-cloud lightning inside thunderstorm cells is related to horizontal rotation in a storm being tilted on-end upward inside a storm cell.
A sudden increase in lightning strikes inside a thunderstorm might one day give forecasters five to 20 minutes of additional warning that a storm cell is about to produce violent weather.

The current severe storms warning system is based on radar reflectivity… but it is believed this lightning jump typically precedes the trigger point for reflectivity by from five to 20 minutes… so we could have that much more time to issue warnings… according to new work by the University of Alabama at Huntsville lightning research team.

The rapid jump in cloud-to-cloud lightning inside thunderstorm cells is related to horizontal rotation in a storm being tilted on-end upward inside a storm cell.

The upright rotation enhances updraft and… a strong updraft is prerequisite for most high impact weather… including hail.. .microbursts… straight line wind and tornadoes. With the strong updraft you get hail… small ice and super-cooled water. Those are the three ingredients. Once you have those… you have electrification.

That increased electrification as the updraft intensifies causes a rapid increase in the number of lightning bolts… which can be counted and tracked to a specific storm cell using both ground-based instrument arrays or instruments on satellites.

While the lightning jump is good at indicating which storms are building, it is not good as a tool for forecasting specific weather events.

While a lightning jump — which can double or triple the number of lightning strikes in a particular storm cell — might not foretell a specific severe weather event… detecting those jumps might help forecasters identify which specific storm cells should be more aggressively probed with Doppler radar.

In addition to trying to better understand the physics of what is happening inside these storm cells… the UAH team is also conducting several tests of a forecasting algorithm developed and refined at UAH. They are trying to develop a computerized tool that might take in the real time lightning data and automatically recognize a significant lightning jump… rather than depending on human forecasters to pick the jump out of the busy and highly random reports of lightning flashes.

While the team expects their lightning count data to one day be integrated with radar in the U.S. severe weather warning network… the lightning data gathered by the new Lightning Mapping Array when it is launched aboard the GOES-R satellite might also have value for meteorologists and aviators throughout the western hemisphere.

In the U.S. and other places where aviation and weather radar is common… the lightning jump data could be an excellent tool for giving pilots an early warning that turbulence is building in a specific storm cell.

With lightning sensors scheduled to be launched aboard two U.S. geostationary satellites… and aboard both European and Chinese weather satellites… pilots worldwide might soon find a new tool for tracking turbulence and severe weather even in the most isolated places on the planet.

While the link between lightning jumps and severe weather is solid… it does not mean there is a correlation between total lightning activity and severe weather… especially tornadoes.

There is not a one-to-one relationship. Tornadoes are very rare… while lightning is very frequent.


In fact… the most violent outbreak of tornadoes in recent history was accompanied by abundant but not extraordinary lightning. According to data from the North Alabama Lightning Mapping Array… there were more than 10.3 million lightning strikes within 300 miles of Huntsville during the April 27, 2011… storms that spun out 62 tornadoes that touched down in Alabama.

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