Detecting lightning is harder than it sounds

August 26th, 2013 by Lynn

    Lightning rolls through the sky over Sonic restaurant in the Denbigh section of Newport News, Virginia, Saturday, June 30, 2012, as severe thunderstorms moved through the area. (Rob Ostermaier/Newport News Daily Press/MCT

    My family and I were once caught by a thunderstorm while hiking above treeline on Mount Madison, and the memory still makes me shudder.

    When lightning flashed about six feet over my head, the sense of staggering power and force all around us was absolutely paralyzing; it was like all the White Mountains range had exploded at once.

    With that in mind, it sounds a little weird that the New Hampshire Innovation Research Center has handed out a $10,000 grant to Airmar Corp. of Milford and a retired Plymouth State University professor to develop a lightning detector.

    What’s so hard about detecting one of the most powerful forces in nature? Nothing, of course – unless you need to do it accurately, quickly, cheaply and from far away because you’re, say, fighting forest fires or alerting boaters on Lake Winnipesaukee. Then it’s pretty difficult, especially the “cheaply” part.

    “You can get that sort of information now from national lightning networks, but they’re all subscription services,” said James Koermer, a professor emeritus in meteorology who is working on the sensor at his new home in Florida, the lightning capital of the U.S. by a long shot.

    These networks use multiple antennas to detect the electromagnetic pulse emitted by lightning – that’s what makes AM radio crackle during thunderstorms – and then triangulate the results to figure out where the bolt originated. That’s pretty much the way GPS works, although with different frequencies, by triangulating signals from multiple satellites to determine your location.

    Koermer and grad student Katie Laro of Concord are trying to do that triangulation from multiple antenna on a single small device.

    We’re using eight receivers within the device – four in a square one way, the others perpendicular,” Koermer said. “It will measure “subtle differences in timing” and the goal is to detect lighting up to 60 miles away.

    Simple in theory, hard in practice.

    Airmar, which makes sensors of varying types for the fishing industry and the military, is developing the very precise and small antennas; filtering out extraneous signals is proving a tough point, Koermer said.

    Testing is taking place on NASA land at Cape Canaveral, near the former home of the Space Shuttle.

    “If we tried to do this study in New England, it might take 20 years to get enough lightning. We’ve had several events in recent weeks that had over 1,500 strikes within 60 miles, in one hour,” said Koermer.

    The Granite State Technology Innovation Grant was matched by a similar amount from Airmar. It’s part of a push by the University of New Hampshire, which runs the Innovation Research Center, to support projects under development in the private sector, turning university smarts into jobs and economic growth.

    The center was created in 1991 and gets $500,000 annually “to increase collaboration, technology development and innovation between New Hampshire businesses and universities.”

    This is the first such grant given in which the principle investigator – funding-speak for the lead science researcher – was from Plymouth State. PSU is often overlooked when considering academic research in New Hampshire but its meteorology department, in particular, has a national reputation for excellence.

    “Nearly every new product Airmahas developed since 1982 has reached commercialization, even recently through the slow economic recovery,” said Marc Sedam, executive director of the NHIRC, in a press release. “The advanced lightning sensor would further drive the success of Airmar’s existing WeatherStation product line.”

    With any luck, next time we head up to the Whites, I’ll carry a PSU Panther-branded Airmar lightning detector.

    Incidentally, our Mt. Madison experience ended OK. We eventually decided to move on to the AMC Madison hut, rather than abandoning the trail to hide in the trees amid the cold rain.

    Looking back, it was a good choice, because while lots of people have died by hypothermia in the White Mountains, to my surprise, nobody has ever been killed by lightning there.

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