For decades children and adults have learned the motto “When the thunder rolls, come inside”. This is a rudimentary approach to staying safe when lightning might be in the immediate area, but thanks to advances in forecasting products, meteorologists are getting more advanced warnings when these sudden dangers might be on the horizon. .
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says several forecasting offices across the country are using an experimental LightningCast product to determine who is most likely to see lightning more than an hour before a strike.
The data comes from the GOES-16 and GOES-17 satellites that constantly monitor the sky over North America.
Forecasters say a sophisticated algorithm is able to recognize patterns in imagery that often precede lightning activity in developing thunderstorms. The output is displayed on easy-to-read maps and color-coded by confidence levels.
The National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the offices that has used the new product and believes it could help forecasters determine when summer thunderstorms are developing.
“That kind of gave us an idea of whether it would be one of the 2 p.m. days or if it would be more of a 4 p.m. event,” said a meteorologist from the NWS office.
Forecasters have found the product useful when there is a large outdoor event, where organizers have their eyes on the weather forecast and experts to learn more about potential impacts.
The usefulness of the new product paid off in July when thousands of athletes descended on central Alabama for the World Games.
The NWS has alerted event organizers to a developing lighting threat, thanks in part to the LightningCast product.
The games have been postponed until the danger moves to the area and meteorologists give the go-ahead.
“Forecasters have given very favorable feedback, saying LightningCast often provides an actionable delay for lightning initiation,” said the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).
Other than major events where organizers are in contact with NWS offices, meteorologists say the public likely hasn’t yet seen any strikes or alerts related to advances in lightning detection.
As the product becomes more accepted and widely used, it is hoped that not only will predictions improve, but that alternative methods are also developed to keep everyone safe and informed.
An estimated 40 million strikes impact the United States each year, and approximately 20 people are killed due to lighting impacts.
So far in 2022, 14 deaths have occurred across the country, including three people hiding under a tree near the White House and a mother waiting outside a school for her child in central Florida.