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“Total Lightning” & “Lightning Jump” – How It Can Lead To Faster Warnings!

Source: NWS-Huntsville.

Source: NWS-Huntsville.

Lightning is one of the deadliest forces of Mother Nature, killing more than 50 people on average per year. The Tennessee Valley is only one of a few areas across the country that has a total lightning mapping array, the North Alabama Lightning Mapping Array (NALMA). This mapping array doesn’t just detect lightning strikes at the point they strike the ground, but they map the entire lightning bolt from it’s beginning, including stepped leaders, streamers…etc., as seen in the image below.

Source: NWS-Huntsville.

Source: NWS-Huntsville.

NALMA also detects intra-cloud flashes, not just cloud-to-ground strikes like the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN), which is called “total lightning”. Total lightning gives scientists a better idea of the electric field and how far the lightning within a storm extends. The intra-cloud flashes before a cloud-to-ground strike can give an up to five-to-ten minute lead time on average, before the first cloud-to-ground lightning strike occurs.

A “lightning jump” is something that can be detected using total lightning. A lightning jump is a dramatic increase in the amount of lightning produced by a storm and can indicate that a storm’s updraft is rapidly intensifying and therefore the storm is strengthening. The National Weather Service (NWS) in Huntsville receives lightning data every two minutes, whereas radar is only updated every five minutes. Therefore NWS meteorologists receive two lightning updates between radar scans and can see lightning trends and potentially know if a storm has strengthened before the next radar scan comes in. This data has proved valuable when issuing severe warnings.

On March 2, 2012, two tornadoes touched down in the Tennessee Valley. One of the storms displayed a lightning jump, an almost tenfold increase in total lightning, which convinced the warning meteorologist at the NWS that day to issue a severe thunderstorm warning. About 10-15 minutes later large hail was reported in Huntsville and about 20 minutes later a tornado touched down just outside of Athens in the Cambridge Community.  Before the tornado touched down, the NWS did issue a tornado warning. That day lightning data provided critical information, not seen in radar, that helped issue a severe thunderstorm warning earlier than if radar was used alone. This allowed for a warning to be issued earlier, more lead time, which likely saved lives.

Learn more about total lightning and lightning jump from my interviews with Brian Carcione, the Science and Operations Officer at NWS-Huntsville, and Dr. Geoffrey Stano, a Senior Scientist/Meteorologist at ENSCO Incorporated in Huntsville in the video below. Also see the research that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is doing at the High Voltage Laboratory at Mississippi State University!

– Jennifer Watson

Twitter: @JWatson_Wx

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