Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Device Gives Scientists Front-Row Seat to Lightning Strikes

A device developed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville has become a valuable tool in researchers’ quest to determine how lightning is spawned in clouds, to map strikes from beginning to end and to better predict severe weather.

The Huntsville Alabama Marx Meter Array (HAMMA) sensor literally resides under a large inverted metal salad bowl to protect the electronics from rain. A modern electronic reinvention of a sensor first developed in the 1950s, it detects the radiated electric field in the atmosphere when lightning strikes.

Michael Mercier / UAH

Dr. Phillip Bitzer, an assistant professor of atmospheric science, has installed a HAMMA lightning sensor on the roof of UAH’s National Space Science Technology Center. A still camera is being installed to provide time-lapse photos of weather that will be viewable on the web. Dr. Bitzer also plans to install two high-speed video cameras in this location as well.

“We take the lightning induced change in the electric field and it’s converted to a voltage reading by our equipment and that’s transmitted to our computer,” said Dr. Phillip Bitzer, an assistant professor of atmospheric science, co-developer of the HAMMA device and the lead author of the study showing its usefulness. (“Characterization and application of VLF/LF source locations from lightning using the Huntsville Alabama Marx Meter Array,” Phillip M. Bitzer, Hugh J. Christian, Mike Stewart, Jeff Burchfield, Scott Podgorny, David Corredor, John Hall, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Veronica Franklin; Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, Vol. 118, Issue 8; April 2013.)

Using the data from a network of HAMMA sensors, the computer generates maps showing the intensity and distribution of the lightning.


Operating in the very low frequency (VLF) spectrum, HAMMA can detect both the intensity and duration of a bolt, called its energetics, and provide scientists with more information than previous mapping array instruments, which usually operate in the very high frequency (VHF) spectrum.

VHF equipment is better at detecting the smaller discharge processes from a lightning strike, while the VLF HAMMA device reads large discharges that are associated with more energetic processes, like the bright return stroke, Dr. Bitzer said. “The combination of VLF and VHF measurements may tell us a whole lot more about what is going on in the flash than either one by itself.”

HAMMA may also help with one of the mysteries of nature – exactly how a lightning bolt gets started in the clouds, an event scientists call initiation.

“We really don’t know how initiation works,” said Dr. Bitzer. “One of the big unanswered questions of lightning research is initiation, and that’s one we are interested in. We’re trying to get a handle on how lightning starts. How does all of this work?”

It’s known that lightning is caused by buildup of positive and negative electrical charges inside a cloud. In the cloud, an embryonic version of hail called graupel collides with ice crystals. This collision usually leads to graupel acquiring a negative charge and ice a positive charge. These separate in a thunderstorm updraft to produce the electric field necessary to produce lightning. However, researchers have never measured an electric field sufficiently strong to itself initiate a lightning strike. Something else must happen to trigger the event, and there are two primary theories about that.

The first theory postulates that the electric field is locally enhanced by the hydrometeors in the cloud, thus enabling lightning to initiate. A competing theory suggests that cosmic rays bombarding Earth from outer space initiate lightning by introducing high-energy electrons that begin the cascade leading to a strike. HAMMA now gives researchers a front-row seat to the processes going on at initiation.

“What we’re able to detect is the initiation of the lightning, which is typically about 30 milliseconds ahead of the lightning stroke,” said Dr. Bitzer. This is the point in a lightning strike when the bolt sends down electrical “leaders” that eventually meet with ascending leaders from the Earth to form the pathway the stroke then follows.

“One thing we’ve been able to show is that using VLF measurements in a network like HAMMA can give us a better idea of the location of different-scale processes that occur during initiation,” Dr. Bitzer said. “In addition, you are able to estimate the strength of a flash.”

Historic databases created from past storms can be valuable in predicting the behavior of future ones, Dr. Bitzer said, because there is a significant uptick in lightning strikes that precedes the main event as a storm arrives.

“If you include lightning data with currently used observations, we’re better able to forecast severe weather,” he said. “This system will show whether we are able to incorporate energetics to then increase lead time to predict a severe storm.”


UAH researchers are working on more tools to get to the core of the process that causes lightning to strike, including development of a Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). The GLM will allow UAH scientists to view storms from space in a geostationary orbit ¬–a fixed position relative to Earth – providing unprecedented ability to track lightning activity.

Similar measurements are currently provided by the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS); however, this instrument is on a satellite that is in low-earth orbit, which means it is unable to track changes in lightning activity over the lifetime of a storm. Another version of LIS built at the same time as the first is scheduled by NASA to be mounted on the International Space Station. UAH engineers are testing and calibrating it now.

In 2015, the GLM will fly on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) a joint effort between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Engineers at UAH are helping to build GLM and UAH scientists are working on how the GLM will gather information. Other UAH researchers are working on how to transition the gathered data to weather forecasters in a form that is most useful to them for predictions.

HAMMA will play a key role in validating GLM performance and further understanding of the data it provides. The measurements from space are well correlated to VLF measurements that HAMMA provides. “HAMMA is a great complement to all the lightning research UAH is actively pursuing,” Dr. Bitzer said.

Dr. Phillip Bitzer
Jim Steele

Dr. Phillip Bitzer | Newswise
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>