by Paul Douglas
“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work” said, Mark Twain.
Most of us have had a close call with lightning and no wonder. Cloud to ground lightning strikes the Earth approximately 50 times a second – roughly 1.4 billion flashes every year. According to NOAA, an average of 47 Americans are struck and killed by lightning annually – deadlier than tornadoes and hurricanes many years.
Lightning is terrifying and vaguely mysterious – scientists don’t begin to have all the answers. But it serves a purpose in nature. These crackling electrostatic discharges recharge the planet’s global battery by keeping the ground flush with negative electric charge while maintaining the ionosphere’s positive charge. Lightning turns the Earth into one great big electrical circuit.
Here’s what we know: for a few milliseconds, lightning heats a pencil-thin channel of air to roughly 53,000 degrees F, about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun. The resulting shockwave of super-heated air expands outward, compressing air into the rolling roar of thunder we hear on the ground, traveling at the speed of sound – covering one mile every 5 seconds.
As you consider incorporating the phenomenon of lightning into an application – whether your audience is consumers in the outdoors or business assets and employees in the field – understanding a few lightning-specific weather industry terms will inform your creative process.
Type – references the type of the pulse and there are only two: cloud to ground and intracloud (which is inclusive of all non-ground connecting pulses and there are a lot of types).
Amperage – indicates the overall energy discharge of the pulse(s). On average lightning strikes register between 5,000 and 20,000 amps, but have been reported over 200,000 amps. Sometimes, you will see voltage representations, but amperage is the industry norm for reporting the strength of lightning strikes.
Temperature – is the suggestive scale of amperage (cold = low vs hot = high). All lightning is hot and this is instead referencing the intensity of amperage and length of time the strike is sustained. The higher the amperage and longer the sustained strike, the higher the probability of starting a fire, causing network failures, and power outages and therefore some lightning is referred to as “hot”.
Polarity – indicates the flow of a positive or negative charge. Negative is by far the most common polarity of cloud to ground lightning, accounting for roughly 90% of all pulses. Generally, these pulses are on the lower side of the amperage scale. Alternatively, positive lightning accounts for only 5-10% of all cloud to ground strikes but is generally on the high end of the amperage scale. This is due to positive lightning strikes originating higher in the clouds and needing to travel a farther distance to reach the ground, therefore requiring more energy.
The takeaways: lightning is dangerous, with the amperage reflecting how much damage that particular pulse could cause. Cloud to ground may cause fires, network failures, and life endangerment. Intracloud strikes may cause issues with communications, planes, and unmanned aircraft.
Keeping people out of harm’s way with lightning requires accurate and reliable data. From fisherman on a lake, farmers in the field or lineman working on a power grid, supplying lightning notifications and visualization can go a long way to improving the safety margin and application value to employees and customers. AerisWeather’s weather API allows you to gather up to a 25-mile radius of lightning strikes that have occurred within the last 5 minutes and our weather data visualization product (AMP) will allow you to map any size region, displaying lightning strike layers along with other contextual overlays.
Numerous industries are consistently impacted by lightning, including agriculture, insurance, utilities, transportation and telecommunications. When properly employed, lightning data can supercharge your risk management and network security plans. By knowing precisely where lighting is being reported now and what assets are in the line of fire, businesses can enact procedures that can minimize asset risk and improve system reliability.
Granular, reliable and actionable lightning data can both alert end users of approaching threats and protect valuable assets. Is your business doing everything in its power to integrate lightning data and lower risk? We have yet to invent a technology capable of stopping a debilitating lightning strike. But with the right weather data provider you can fine-tune operations to run smoother and safer – minimizing the risk of any surprising bolts from the blue.
-Paul Douglas, Chief Science Officer & Co-Founder
*Lightning data provided by ENTLN