SALISBURY, Md.- Here's something you probably DON’T KNOW: The lightning displays you see on Storm Tracker radar are ONLY cloud to ground strikes.
Yes, we all care about bolts that touch the ground, because they may fry your microwave, or even you, but it turns out that knowing the total storm lightning flash rate is very important. Most NWS forecast offices and TV broadcast weather offices do not get this total data, because you need what’s called a lightning mapping array (LMA), and they are not cheap. There are a few LMA’s that are used for research in Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington DC, and North Alabama, but most of the nation is not covered by one.
I was part of a team of Meteorologists from the National weather Service that evaluated this research at the Hazardous Weather Test Bedin Norman, Oklahoma last week. We evaluated a new tool developed in part by a couple of friends of mine, Dr. Walt Petersen at NASA on Wallops Island, and Elise Schultz, an Atmospheric Scientist at UAH in Huntsville AL. It’s called a lightning jump algorithm, and the basics are pretty simple. Research shows that when the total lightning in a storm jumps dramatically in a short time, the thunderstorm will often get much stronger.
Dr. Larry Carey a professor of Atmospheric Science at the Univ.of Alabama in Huntsville put it this way: "The jump shows that a storm is rapidly developing. It says, 'We need to pay special attention to this storm because the probability of severe weather has just gone up dramatically.'
If you are a forecaster watching storm cells start to pop up, among the cells that pop up the one that has the lightning jump first, that's the one you should be paying attention to."
We don't need to build LMA’s across the country, because in two years, the GOES-R weather satellite will launch, and it will carry the Geostationary Lightning Mapper(GLM). It will give forecasters like me lightning data across North America in real-time, and it just may make the lead time on severe thunderstorms increase by up to 30 minutes. That's good news if you're in the path of a dangerous storm.