Armed with new sensors that expose the inner workings of thunderstorms, meteorologists are starting to offer earlier warnings about dangerous lightning to everyone from pilots and golfers to stadium managers and space shuttle crews.
“Rarely does lightning announce itself that it’s coming,” said Walter Lyons, president of the American Meteorological Society, in a presentation at the association’s 85th annual convention in San Diego this week. “But now we have the technology to know where lightning is.”
Before recent technological advances, lightning prediction was more of a matter of guesswork, based more on where lightning had been than where it’s starting to develop.
Lightning, the product of electricity produced when ice crystals rub against each other in clouds, gives off charges that can be picked up by sensors. By using mathematical formulas to sift through reams of data from the sensors, scientists triangulated out where the strikes had landed and plotted them on maps.
That wasn’t much help, however, in preventing the estimated 100-plus lightning deaths in the United States each year. Lightning fatalities often outpace deaths from tornadoes and hurricanes.
Many people know to get inside when they first see a lightning flash or hear thunder, the sound of the air exploding around a lightning bolt. The principle of natural selection — enshrined in the Darwin Awards — might suggest that lightning prunes the gene pool by targeting people who refuse to stop golfing (golfers account for at least 5 percent of lightning deaths) or hang out under a tree during a thunderstorm (14 percent).
In reality, it’s not always easy to know when to run. The very first lightning strike of a thunderstorm is often deadly, giving people no opportunity to seek shelter, and bolts are still possible 30 minutes after a storm seems to have finished producing lightning.