A Promising Trend in Lightning Safety

January 3, 2013 · 0 comments

Since 2006, lightning has been the third most common cause of storm-related deaths in the United States, behind only floods and tornadoes. But lightning deaths are trending downward, suggesting that educational efforts on the dangers of lightning, as well as improved warning capabilities, are making a difference. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has averaged 54 lightning deaths per year. But over the last decade, that number falls to 32 deaths per year, with a record-low of 26 in 2011 and only 28 in 2012. Of course, some of that decline is connected to social trends: early in the twentieth century, when many more people worked outside, lightning deaths in the U.S. numbered in the hundreds per year.

At the Annual Meeting in Austin, the Sixth Conference on the Meteorological Applications of Lightning Data will look at some social factors connected to lightning fatalities, including posters on Monday in Exhibit Hall 3 by Ronald Holle of Holle Meteorology and Photography (summarizing the dangers of lightning to people sheltering near trees) and Andrew Rosenthal of Earth Networks (on the effects of lightning at sporting events). And in the 16th Conference on Aviation, Range, and Aerospace Meteorology, Matthias Steiner of NCAR will explore some of the key issues related to lightning safety at airports (Wednesday, 4:30 p.m., Room 17A).

Along with changes in behavior, education and information are cited as important factors in reducing lightning fatalities, and some of the latest developments in this area will be explored in Austin. NOAA’s new lightning fatality database collects data from media sources, local NWS offices, and local officials to compile information on U.S. lightning deaths–including various demographics and the activity of the victim at the time of the strike–that can help us understand lightning fatality patterns and educate the public on what situations are most dangerous. Private meteorologist William Roeder will present a poster on the new database and its applications to lightning safety education (Exhibit Hall 3).

The conference will explore numerous ways that lightning data can be used to understand related severe weather phenomena. For example, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the GOES-R spacecraft (scheduled for launch in 2015) will be able to continuously map total lightning activity throughout the day and night, which should prove valuable in forecasting tornadoes, storm intensification, and other severe weather. NOAA’s Steven Goodman will discuss the GLM’s capabilities on Wednesday (8:30 a.m., Ballroom G). In the same session (9:30 a.m., Ballroom G), Daniel Cecil of the University of Alabama will present an algorithm for using proxy GLM data to identify lightning jumps, which are sudden increases in flash rate for a convective cell and therefore can also provide advance warning of severe weather. Another example is the use of the pseudo-Geostationary Lightning Mapper (pGLM) product, which was created for the Hazardous Weather Testbed (HWT) Spring Experiment/Experimental Warning Program. Kristin Calhoun of CIMMS and NOAA will explain how the pGLM used total lightning data to detect VHF radiation from lightning discharges, and subsequently to forecast storm modes (Wednesday, 8:45 a.m., Ballroom G).

This is just a small sampling of lightning-related research to be presented in Austin–a promising sign that continued reductions in lightning tragedies are still possible in the future.