A new study on predicting maximum hurricane intensity using lightning

Lightning -vs- wind speed in Hurricane Dennis, 2005

Lightning and Wind Speed -vs- Storm Age in Hurricane Dennis, 2005

David L. Hagen writes in with an interesting new paper, Maximum hurricane intensity preceded by increase in lightning frequency (PDF). I find it fascinating.

It was published in Nature Geoscience on April 6th, 2009 by Colin Price, Mustafa Asfur, and Yoav Yair. Price is from the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, Tel Aviv University while Asfur and Yair are from the Department of Life and Natural Sciences, The Open University of Israel.

The abstract reads:

Hurricanes are the Earth’s most deadly storms, causing tremendous devastation around the globe every year. Forecasters are quite successful in predicting the pathways of hurricanes days in advance1, but hurricane intensification is less accurately predicted. Here we analyse the evolution of maximum winds and total lightning frequency every 6 h during the entire lifetime of 56 hurricanes around the globe. We find that in all of these hurricanes, lightning frequency and maximum sustained winds are significantly correlated (mean correlation coefficient of 0.82), where the maximum sustained winds and minimum pressures in hurricanes are preceded by increases in lightning activity approximately one day before the peak winds. We suggest that increases in lightning activity in hurricanes are related to enhanced convection that increases the rate of moistening of the lower troposphere, which in turn leads to the intensification of hurricanes2. As lightning activity can now be monitored continuously in hurricanes at any location around the globe, lightning data may contribute to better hurricane forecasts in the future.

The premise makes sense, because lightning is essentially a proxy for energy release of a storm. As the authors write: “Lightning is directly related to thermodynamic processes that result in the release of latent heat in convective clouds”, though it is not always an exact proxy. Cumulonimbus vary their lightning out based on many other atmospheric factors also. Even so, there seems to be both statistical and anecdotal correlations for the premise of lightning frequency to hurricane intensity.

The authors write:

Although for many years hurricanes were believed to have little lightning activity, lightning has been observed within many hurricanes. Even some historical anecdotes from sailors describe intense lightning in hurricanes15: “For one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke forth with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought the ships would be blasted”. Recently, lightning activity in tropical waves has also been related to the genesis of hurricanes.

To check the connection between hurricane intensification and electrical activity, we have collected data from all 58 category-4 and category-5 (Saffir-Simpson scale) hurricanes around the globe over a three-year period (2005-2007) (Fig. 1; see Methods). By definition, these storms have maximum sustained horizontal winds greater than 114 knots (210 km h). The two main centres of hurricane activity occurred in the west Pacific and the west Atlantic. However, intense hurricanes also occurred in the Indian Ocean and southern/eastern Pacific.

Lightning Correlation IN 52 Hurricanes

The correlation coefficients (r) between maximum sustained winds and lightning activity.

From the paper:

The statistical significance of these fits is shown in Fig. 4, where

the linear correlation coefficients (r) between the lightning activity

and wind speeds are shown for each hurricane, taking into account

the lags shown in Fig. 3. The names of the 56 hurricanes are shown

along the x axis, and the correlation coefficients are shown with

different symbols depending on their statistical significance. The

significance was calculated on the basis of the number of days

used in the analysis for each hurricane. Hence, two hurricanes

with the same correlation coefficient can have different statistical

significance. All 56 hurricanes show significant correlations

(>90%) between lightning activity and maximum sustained winds,

with a mean of r D0:82. This implies that daily lightning frequencies

can explain more than 67% of the daily variability in maximum

sustained winds, with an average lead time of 30 h.

And also:

Of the 58 hurricanes analysed, only 2 showed no significant

correlation between lightning and wind speed. One of these

hurricanes (Ingrid 2005) showed no lightning at all, whereas the

other (Kirogi 2005) had two maxima in the wind speeds and

lightning, but the larger maxima in the wind speeds was correlated

with the weaker peak of the lightning activity (see Supplementary

Information S2). Hence, only one event showed no relationship

between lightning and maximum wind speed. If we consider a

constant lag of 30 h between the lightning activity and the maximum

winds in all hurricanes, we find that 31 out of 56 (55%) of the

hurricanes show a positive correlation between lightning and wind

speed, although only 19 out of 56 (34%) of the hurricanes show a

statistically significant correlation for a fixed lag.

Interesting research. When we get improved lightning detection systems this may be a valuable tool. Unfortunately, NOAA has fallen down on the job related to this, while NOAA has an excellent (best in the world) NEXRAD Doppler Radar Network, they have no lightning detection network at all. Private companies have filled the gap, and they charge exorbitant sums and have draconian licensing schemes. I cite this from experience.

With all of the stimulus money being thrown around at NOAA, you’d think they’d do this, particularly since lightning accounts for a significant amount of deaths, injuries, and property damage in the USA each year.

The following maps and tables show state-by-state lightning deaths from 1990 to 2003 based on Storm Data compiled by Ronald L. Holle, Meteorologist/Consultant at Vaisala Inc.  He notes there is a continuing shift to the south and west in death rates caused by lightning.

Source: National Lightning Safety Institute

http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_lls/fatalities_us.html

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30 thoughts on “A new study on predicting maximum hurricane intensity using lightning

  1. Florida is in fact the capital of the world for lightening strikes (or is that death by lightning strikes?). See, we have thunderstorms somewhere in the state almost everyday. Which always makes me wonder “Why are we called the ‘Sunshine state’ again”?
    It would be interesting to see climatological data relating to lightning. It might provide , in the case of lightning associated with hurricanes, and independent method of analyzing alleged trends in hurricane activity.
    Anyway, an interesting paper, shows that we learn new and interesting things about weather every day.

  2. How does this tie into the recent findings that lightening DECREASES with reduced solar activity?

  3. Interesting and definitely fascinating.
    The title under the first graph should read “Lightning and Wind Speed -vs- Age in Hurricane Dennis, 2005″ instead of “Lightning -vs- wind speed in Hurricane Dennis, 2005″
    REPLY: thanks for pointing out the typo- Anthony

  4. Fascinating.
    Perhaps NOAA not pursuing this indicates that they may be suffering from NASA Syndrome — NIH — Not Invented Here.
    The larger the organization, the slower it responds to new and innovative ideas. So small innovative companies spring up to fill a need that the larger organization is too blind to see.
    And here I thought all those ‘lightning tracker’ segments on the TV weather came from the beloved weather bureau. Now this explains a comment a local on-air meteorologist made about the expense involved in the service. Being at the eastern end of Lake Erie, it must be tough to justify that expense when it mostly shows (but not always) thunderstorm activity so often dying out over the lake before hitting land.

  5. I can only say that this makes a lot of sense.
    It also allows a real time early warning sytem if lightning data is registered and made available by a web link.
    I am sure some one will write a computer programme that turns the lighting and wind data into a specialized program for airports and small airfields as well.

  6. For decades, general aviation has had a lightning detector available as a less expensive alternative to airplane radar. It’s called a Stormscope™ and has a small screen that puts a mark at the direction and distance from the airplane each time it detects a strike. The theory is that the worst turbulence is in the area of the lightning strikes.

  7. Somewhere someone has made a mistake. Ingrid was never a hurricane AND was in 2007.
    Ingrid developed from a large tropical wave that exited the coast of Africa on 6 September (2007). At that time, strong easterly shear inhibited development over the eastern Atlantic and it was not until 9 September that a broad area of low pressure developed along the wave axis, about midway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles. By the morning of 12 September, the system acquired sufficient organization to be designated a tropical depression, while centered about 980 n mi east of the Lesser Antilles. Despite moderate westerly shear, the cyclone became a tropical storm around 0600 UTC 13 September, and reached its maximum intensity of 40 kts 12 h later. Persistent westerly shear prevented further intensification. During the next 24 hours, the shear increased, which resulted in Ingrid weakening to a tropical depression and it remained a tropical depression for a day or so before degenerating into a remnant low.

  8. In 2005 the “I” named TD/Hurricane was Irene, was a hurricane for a very short period of time, Aug. 15 – 18 and never touch land. It was hardly noticed except in Bermuda and quickly forgotten because of the “K” named storm from the 23rd to the 30th of August – Katrina

  9. Lightning picking up within the eye of the hurricane suggests the storm’s intensity will pick up. The, above, comment suggesting lower solar activity leads to decreased lightning strikes, and tornadoes having strong electric charge, all these things suggest the electromagnetic energy of the Sun and not just the Sun’s irradiance plays a role on the Earth’s weather.
    So, it’s not just the Sun’s irradiance (brightness), but also it electromagnetic energy, strength of solar wind, coronal mass ejections, they all play a part in Earth’s climate.
    Oh…and, by the way, none of these factors are taken into account in the AGW proponent’s mathematical models.
    How can these models be anywhere close to having validity when they leave out such a large part of the Sun’s total energy emittance to Earth?
    Answer: They don’t.

  10. “Hurricanes are the most deadly storms on the Earth, with
    evidence that the strength and number of intense hurricanes
    (category 4 and 5 of the SaffirSimpson scale) may have increased
    in recent decades (4,5.)”
    Not to be picky, but both the papers referenced in that statement are from 2005, didn’t Ryan Maue already point out here that their conclusions on increases in strength and number were not valid?
    I also recall seeing this on Pielke Jr’s blog, http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/what-the-ccsp-extremes-report-really-says-4466 , looks pretty clear to me that the current evidence does not agree with one of their opening statements.
    Guess I just don’t like seeing recent papers ignored in compiling opening statements to a paper that is really focused on hurricane mechanics and has nothing to do with increased trends or numbers in “recent decades”.
    Sets my teeth on edge.

  11. Opps, sorry my bad. Ingrid of 2005 was in the Coral Sea and the Northern part of Australia. I was in toooo much of a hurry here, had to got to the store.

  12. Mike McMillan (13:22:39) :
    For decades, general aviation has had a lightning detector available as a less expensive alternative to airplane radar. It’s called a Stormscope™ and has a small screen that puts a mark at the direction and distance from the airplane each time it detects a strike. The theory is that the worst turbulence is in the area of the lightning strikes.
    Mike,
    I know, have a look at the latest models and prices:
    http://www.avionix.com/store/stormscope.html

  13. Interesting, and possibly very important. We’ve gotten better at forecasting hurricane tracks faster than we’ve gotten at forecasting intensity. Even if this only helps short-term forecasting, it may be a big help, especially when combined with other intensity forecast elements like wind shear and water temperature.
    Oh – that reminds me – I forgot to check the Klotzbach/Gray June hurricane forecast at http://tropical.atmos.colostate.edu/forecasts/2009/june2009/jun2009.pdf – they’ve lowered their estimates since April and are now forecasting a weaker than average season.
    While their predictors do not include the Pacific, they do use something from the Indian Ocean that is affected by El Nino, and they refer to the expected El Nino as one reason for a lowered forecast.

  14. Florida has many, many, many golf courses. Methinks the deaths by lightning are skewed by the fact that many, many, many golfers would rather risk lightning than not finish a round. Most people I know do not believe it will ever happen to them. I can give you several personal stories about lightning strikes on a golf course but my favorite (only because I was not injured) was a time when I, playing alone, caught up to a group of 3 University of Minnesota students on vacation. I joined them to finish the round and shortly thereafter I heard the thunder. I strongly suggested we call it a day of their response was a very testosterone filled “What are you scared of a little lightning” Almost immediately a bolt (out of clear sky by the way) struck a tree only a couple of hundred yards away. When I turned to say I told you so, all I could see was the back of the golf cart kicking up dust as it raced towards the clubhouse. I always leave the course upon hearing the first sound of thunder. Unfortunately, most people don’t.

  15. I’m puzzled by the 30 hour delay; lots’a lightning and then the winds intensify. I’d think that the energy from the storm intensifying would produce more lightning. So they’re saying lighting causes wind? (Nah! I know bwtter than that.)
    So the question is; what phenomenon causes an increase in lightning and then 30 hours later, an increase in wind speed?

  16. Private companies have filled the gap, and they charge exorbitant sums and have draconian licensing schemes. I cite this from experience.
    If the need exists, and someone can do it cheaper, they will. That’s the beauty of capitalism.

  17. The large amount of lightning hitting Florida makes it obvious that Florida should be split into ten states, thus reducing the lightning problem by about ten percent.

  18. Unfortunately, NOAA has fallen down on the job related to this, while NOAA has an excellent (best in the world) NEXRAD Doppler Radar Network, they have no lightning detection network at all. Private companies have filled the gap, and they charge exorbitant sums and have draconian licensing schemes. I cite this from experience.

    You will recall early-on that third-part subscription services (e.g. WSI at the time) were the norm for accessing NEXRAD/WSR-88D imagery, and it wasn’t all that long ago! Even now, access to wide-band high-res imagery may have an associated cost (from several different providers, including the government itself.)
    Also note that a number of NEXRAD/WSR-88D sites are DOD-owned/funded and not strictly NOAA.
    .
    .

  19. >> Mitchel44 (15:41:40) :
    . . .
    Not to be picky, but both the papers referenced in that statement are from 2005, didn’t Ryan Maue already point out here that their conclusions on increases in strength and number were not valid?
    . . .
    Guess I just don’t like seeing recent papers ignored in compiling opening statements to a paper that is really focused on hurricane mechanics and has nothing to do with increased trends or numbers in “recent decades”.
    Sets my teeth on edge. <<
    It’s the reality of getting your paper published in today’s environment. I’ve read dozens and dozens of papers where they state a pro-AGW position or support unsupported pro-AGW concepts in the first couple of paragraphs. The bulk of those papers and their conclusions never support those statements. It appears that peer reviewers rarely read past the first few paragraphs. This prevents your paper from being rejected because it doesn’t support the current “consensus.”
    Jim

  20. Looking upstream into the chain of causes, there is growing interest in cosmic rays as possible precursors that trigger lighting. e.g. See:
    Dwyer, J R et al. (2008), The role of extensive cosmic-ray air showers in lightning initiation, Eos Trans. AGU, 89(53), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract AE21A-06 INVITED

    AB: Over the years, many researchers have suggested that runaway electron avalanches may play an important role in thunderstorm physics and lightning initiation. For instance, it has been proposed that runaway electron avalanches seeded by extensive cosmic-ray air showers could result in enough ionization to initiate lightning. This hypothesis, which attempts to address the long-standing mystery of how lightning initiates in the relatively low electric fields observed inside thunderstorms, has gained a great deal of attention, both from the scientific community and from the popular press. Unfortunately, so far, there is little observational evidence and only limited theoretical work to support this idea. In this presentation, the possible roles that runaway electron avalanches and extensive cosmic-ray air showers play in thunderstorm and lightning processes will be discussed, including new theoretical and modeling results and planned UF-FIT experiments to be performed to address these topics.

    Amplified radio emission from cosmic ray air showers in thunderstorms S. Buitink et al. Astronomy & Astrophysics 467, 385-394 (2007) DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:20066006

    Context.The detection of radio pulses from cosmic ray air showers is a potentially powerful new detection mechanism for studying spectrum and composition of ultra high energy cosmic rays that needs to be understood in greater detail. The radiation consists in large part of geosynchrotron radiation. The intensity of this radiation depends, among other factors, on the energy of the primary particle and the angle of the shower axis with respect to the geomagnetic field.
    Aims.Since the radiation mechanism is based on particle acceleration, the atmospheric electric field can play an important role. Especially inside thunderclouds large electric fields can be present. In this paper we examine the contribution of an electric field to the emission mechanism theoretically and experimentally.
    Methods.Two mechanisms of amplification of radio emission are considered: the acceleration radiation of the shower particles and the radiation from the current that is produced by ionization electrons moving in the electric field. For both mechanisms analytical estimates are made of their effects on the radio pulse height. We selected LOPES data recorded during thunderstorms, periods of heavy cloudiness and periods of cloudless weather. We tested whether the correlations with geomagnetic angle and primary energy vary with atmospheric conditions.
    Results.We find that during thunderstorms the radio emission can be strongly enhanced. The present data suggests that the observed amplification is caused by acceleration of the shower electrons and positrons. In the near future, extensions of LOPES and the construction of LOFAR will help to identify the mechanism in more detail. No amplified pulses were found during periods of cloudless sky or heavy cloudiness, suggesting that the electric field effect for radio air shower measurements can be safely ignored during non-thunderstorm conditions.

  21. Alan Cheetham has explored
    Earth’s Magnetic Field and Climate Variability

    The right-hand figure shows the same temperature data with the magnetic field intensity contours (5000 nT contours in red) from the first (above) figure superimposed. The areas of greatest warming are where the magnetic field is at its greatest intensity in the northern polar region, whereas the area of greatest cooling is where the magnetic field is at its greatest intensity in the southern polar region.

    Compare this with:
    Where Lightning Strikes NASA

    Dec. 5, 2001: Lightning. It avoids the ocean, but likes Florida. It’s attracted to the Himalayas and even more so to central Africa. And lightning almost never strikes the north or south poles. . . .
    This new perspective on lightning is possible thanks to two satellite-based detectors: the Optical Transient Detector (OTD) and the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS). “The OTD and the LIS are two optical sensors that we’ve flown in lower Earth orbit,” says Christian, whose team developed the sensors. “The OTD was launched in 1995 and we got five good years out of it. The LIS was launched on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite in 1997 and it’s still going strong.”
    “Basically, these optical sensors use high-speed cameras to look for changes in the tops of clouds, changes your eyes can’t see,” he explains. By analyzing a narrow wavelength band around 777 nanometers — which is in the near-infrared region of the spectrum — they can spot brief lightning flashes even under daytime conditions.

    Global Lightning Map NASA
    Could no lightning near the poles suggest that low magnetic field and thus high cosmic rays may result in low/no lightning?

  22. There’s another factor to confound the models. If I remember my aviation meteorology correctly, a Cb doesn’t start producing lightning until the upper one-third of the cloud is above the freezing level.
    Jim

  23. Ahem, in terms of the Plasma Model the observations can be explained by the operation of electric currents – it’s the electricity driving the hurricanes, not them producing the electricity.
    If you believe that swirling air coupled with water and particles can generate lightning, and hence electricity, then don’t buy a Dyson Vaccum cleaner – for according to standard model of hurricane lightning generation, Dyson vacuum cleaners must be electrical generators.
    The plasma model can also explain David L. Hagen’s post above re magnetic field strength vs temperature – all magnetic fields are generated by electric currents, and we know from satellite data that millions of amperes of elecric current pass into and out of the Earth’s polar regions.

  24. David L. Hagen (20:46:44) :
    Looking upstream into the chain of causes, there is growing interest in cosmic rays as possible precursors that trigger lighting.

    Hmmmm … I’ve always noted down here in Tejas it was associated with heavy precipitation …
    So much so (based on my observations), rapid, repeated occurance of lightning seems to be a mighty-good proxy indicating heavy rain in the area.
    Perhaps the ‘cosmic rays as possible precursors’ works as a factor moreso when the precip is not-so-heavy and under different precip-producing meteorological conditions than the numerous ‘frog-stranglers’
    and gully-washers (as Harold Taft, R.I.P., used to call them) we have here in Tejas.
    .
    .
    .

  25. Could no lightning near the poles suggest that low magnetic field and thus high cosmic rays may result in low/no lightning?

    I would look to other meteorological conditions factors first before persuing that aspect at ‘the poles’.
    A reminder about the false-linking of correlation and causation should also be applied here.
    .
    .

  26. Louis Hissink (22:19:41) :

    If you believe that swirling air coupled with water and particles can generate lightning, and hence electricity, then don’t buy a Dyson Vaccum cleaner –

    Have you investigated this using something along the lines of an electrometer (rotary-vane style ‘field-mill’ or other suitable instrument)?
    .
    .

  27. The following review addresses issues surrounding lightning: The atmospheric global electric circuit: An overview Devendraa Siingha, V. Gopalakrishnana, R. P. Singh, A. K. Kamraa, Shubha Singh, Vimlesh Panta, R. Singh, and A. K. Singh, Atmospheric Research, 84, 91-110, 2007, arXiv:0906.1280v1 [physics.ao-ph]
    Note particularly:

    Even very small changes (1~ 3%) in the cosmic ray flux
    in the equatorial regions due to variation in solar wind inputs may affect the thunderstorm charging current and ionospheric potential.
    . . .
    In fact solar wind, solar flares, galactic cosmic rays, ionospheric-magnetospheric dynamo, thunder cloud, geomagnetic disturbances, solar magnetic sector boundary crossings, solar cycle variations, auroral activity etc affect the components of GEC (Lakhina 1993; Tinsley, 2000; Singh et al., 2004). . . .
    It is noted that even 1% increase in global surface temperature could result into a 20% increase in ionospheric potential (Price, 1993).

    Price, C., 1993. Global surface temperature and the atmospheric electric circuit. Geophys. Res. Lett. 20, 1363-1366.
    Singh, D.K., Singh, R.P., Kamra, A.K. 2004. The electrical environment of the Earth’s atmosphere: A review. Space Sci. Rev. 113, 375-408.

  28. David L. Hagen (18:12:27) :
    [_]Jim
    Per your comments on precipitation intensity v lightning …

    Thanks David. The paper supports my assertions, a couple of quick excerpts:

    This analysis is a composite of the global Tropics and subtropics.

    Several hundred flashes per minute are observed in the greatest flash rate storms, with one storm in the 3-yr database exceeding 1000 fl/min. These are large mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) with contributions from intense individual convective cells or lines.

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