Scientists are seeking information that may someday help forecasters save lives by improving severe storm warning lead-time by up to 50 percent. They are also interested in decreasing the false alarm rate for non-tornado producing storms.
One such tool researchers are using is the North Alabama Lightning Mapping Array, currently used by the National Weather Service's regional forecast offices in Alabama. This NASA system helps forecasters monitor the weakening and strengthening of storms to identify those likely to produce severe weather. These efforts could improve severe storm detection and lead-time.
NASA researchers at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala., created lightning maps that show where and how much lightning strikes worldwide. These data are important to climatologists, since lightning indicates the location of large storms that release latent heat; the "fuel supply" that helps drive the Earth's climate "engine."
Researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., have gathered, studied and analyzed lightning data from virtually all vantage points, seeking a better understanding of this powerful force of nature. Some of their most promising efforts involve gathering lightning data from space. Advances in satellite technology have already aided efforts to monitor severe weather.
"Sharp, rich pictures of the ever-changing atmosphere are now available to forecasters in near real-time thanks to sensors aboard NASA's newest climate research satellites, Terra and Aqua," said Dr. Richard Blakeslee of MSFC.
A new activity -- known as Short-term Prediction Research and Transition, or SpoRT -- uses data from a sensor called MODIS, or Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, aboard these satellites. MODIS gleans between 16 and 100 times more detail than comparable instruments aboard current weather satellites, giving researchers a head start in incorporating highly detailed data into weather forecasts.
"We're looking to future satellites to provide an even more comprehensive view of lightning," Blakeslee added. For example, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite, is scheduled to launch in 2012. Among its proposed instruments is a lightning mapper that could observe lightning continually over the United States.
In the United States an average of 67 people are killed each year by lightning. In 2003, there were 44 deaths. That's more than the annual number of people killed by tornadoes or hurricanes. Many more are struck by lightening but survive with adverse health affects.
NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, which funds lightning research, is dedicated to understanding the Earth as an integrated system and applying Earth System Science to improve prediction of climate, weather and natural hazards using the unique vantage point of space.