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Archives > December 2012 > Lightning Safety and Technology

Lightning Safety and Technology

All too often, tragedies must occur in order for corrective measures to be investigated and technologies to be installed as part of new safety objectives.

By: Bob Dugan

One such tragedy occurred to a young Jesse Watlington October 3, 2012, in Fort Myers, Florida. However, to fully understand the true nature of this tragic event, a brief look at history is necessary.

In 1998, Holle/Lopez announced the results of lightning studies for the Severe Storms Laboratory. Two of the most significant discoveries were that 80% of all lightning casualties occur various distances away from the rain/storm shaft, and that lightning can easily strike from distances of eight or more miles from distant storms. What this intensive study shows is that an individual can't always see or hear a storm or know by simply looking whether the area is lightning safe-or not.

Jesse was struck by a "first strike" at South West Florida Christian Academy while running to the school's practice field. There was no rain, no visible lightning and no rumbles of thunder to be heard. In fact, the sky was remarkably bright with only high, upper-level clouds. The school made use of a handheld lightning detector which showed nothing and a popular weather forecasting and warning app-supplied to coaches by a large provider of weather data-also showed there were no weather issues in the area. Unfortunately, the basic shortcoming of "detection" technology failed to provide the warning required to avoid this unnecessary loss of life.

Because any weather-related detection device or service, which includes radar, can only react to something that has already occurred, they can never be truly proactive when it comes to lightning. All lightning detection systems react to disturbances in the Earth's electromagnetic fields which are caused by lightning strikes and other electrical anomalies. This electromagnetic field has absolutely nothing to do with the formation or creation of a lightning strike. While many more advanced lightning detectors try and predict lightning with "cloud-to-cloud" lightning which they claim always occurs prior to cloud to ground lightning, data proves this technique is not a reliable forecaster of first strikes.

Radar devices are equally problematic due to the inherent delay in the scanning designs. Most radar data comes from NOAA/National Weather Service. The typical delay of three and one-half to six minutes is due to the time necessary for the radar array to finish a single rotational scan and the related data assembly delay. Local TV radar units can minimize the delay to two to three minutes.

Radar imagery shows rain densities and does not always relate to lightning being present. Most providers use national lightning detection networks which are also delayed by up to 10 minutes and often miss many smaller emerging strikes. In any case, unless you always shut down a facility for many hours when any weather issues are seen, unfortunate surprises from Mother Nature will occur. In a way, trying to use any weather or lightning detection technology to predict lightning is like attempting to use a balloon to power a 747.

Lightning is actually formed and released in the Earth's electrostatic atmosphere. By using highly specific and advanced technology created to measure, track and forecast the dynamics of positive and negative charges in the air and ground, the very charges which create lightning, you can then have a device which can warn of first strikes, side strikes, or even strikes which follow storms which have seemingly left your area of concern. True lightning prediction systems provide various levels of warnings while others provide voltage levels and leave the interpretation of the data to the user.

Now that the technology has been described, the differences don't end there. The integration with an audible and visual warning system, which is automatically triggered by the base system, with no human intervention required, is vital. Frequently, prediction systems will provide a warning with no apparent dangerous weather cell present. The only way to assure a warning whenever necessary is using a totally automated system.

In a perfect world, the utilization of radar, lightning detection and lightning prediction would provide a complete picture of impending, potentially dangerous weather. The difficulty with this broad approach is that, if not applied in a very stringent overall weather safety procedure, the human element is re-introduced creating an opportunity for a missed call. This total approach to long-range weather warning better lends its strengths to large events with thousands of people in attendance, allowing for significantly more evacuation time needed for the safety of these individuals.

Local and remote access to warning levels is also mandatory. With today's technology, cell phones and computers can access and display nearly everything available on the internet. Providing open access to lightning prediction data to the public also encourages participation in weather safety through knowledge and awareness. In a lightning prone environment, it always helps to provide as much useful information (data) as possible.

Your campus is a destination for students seeking higher education and personal growth. It is the learning institution's responsibility to keep students safe and is relatively easy and cost effective to install quality warning systems on campus. This is a responsibility towards safety which needs to be taken seriously.

 

 

About The Author
Bob Dugan

 

is President of Thor Guard, Inc., and began with the company in 1988. Bob grew up in Albany, NY, and Pittsfield, Ma. Bob graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1975 and now resides in Marco Island, FL. For more information, email Bob at bdugan@ thorguard.com or call 954-835-0900.

 

 

 

 

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