‘Spider lightning’ seen from space

From NOAA/NESDIS: When you spend 24/7/365 staring at Earth, you see some strange things. The NOAA GOES East satellite (GOES-16) witnessed a frightening display of stratiform, or ‘spider’ lightning as it’s known, in October 2017 over the central plains in the U.S.

The GOES-R series of satellites (which includes GOES-16 and the recently launched GOES-17) are equipped with the new Geostationary Lightning Mapper – GLM – technology, allowing the satellite to capture imagery of lightning as never seen before. Check out this video to see the prolific spider lightning erupt over multiple states over several hours.

The video above is from a storm system last October that produced extensive stratiform (or spider) lightning behind the main convective line.  This lightning connected vast regions of opposite charge within the thunderstorm clouds. These extensive lightning flashes often simultaneously strike the ground in multiple places miles apart. They also are known to trigger upward lightning from tall objects.The imagery in this video was created using snapshots from the satellite taken over the same location every five minutes.

A photo of Spider Lightning
Ground photograph of ‘Spider Lightning’

These flashes are called spider lightning due to the pattern they create when they quickly creep and crawl from one cloud to another. These long, horizontally traveling flashes can be seen from Earth below the clouds when they are especially strong and bright. GOES East, along with the recently launched GOES-17 satellite, can ‘see’ the lightning flashes all the way from their orbital position 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth using the GLM instrument.

The GLM continually looks for lightning flashes in the Western Hemisphere. Along with the ABI instrument, the flash density can help forecasters observe the formation and intensification of storms.  Rapid increases of lightning are a signal that a storm is strengthening quickly and could produce severe weather. During heavy rain, GLM data can show when thunderstorms are stalled or if they are gathering strength. When combined with radar and other satellite data from geostationary and polar satellites, GLM data may help forecasters anticipate severe weather and issue flood and flash flood warnings sooner. In dry areas, especially in the western United States, information from the instrument will help forecasters, and ultimately firefighters, identify areas prone to wildfires sparked by lightning.

A photo of Suomi NPP Captjavascript:void(0)ures Lightning

NOAA GOES East wasn’t the only satellite in our fleet to capture this rare event shown above. The Day Night Band on board the polar orbiting NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP Satellite (*note this event occurred just before our new polar orbiting NOAA-20 satellite launched) was also able to observe lighting during this event. The Day Night Band can detect lightning flashes, which appear as bright streaks atop a nocturnal storm. While the DNB can’t detect how much lightning is happening, depending on the lightning flash rate of a storm, there is a chance that the Day Night Band might capture the in-cloud scattered light. Suomi NPP was able to capture these spider lightning strikes due to their extent and prolonged duration.

And you thought sharks in a tornado was a scary concept!  Does looking at these images give you Astra-Arachnophobia?!

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27 thoughts on “‘Spider lightning’ seen from space

  1. There was one quite long bright single horizontal lightning flash across the western end of Lake Erie this evening during a thunderstorm.

    Spider Lightning?

  2. Grew up in north Missouri,.. yawn.. you don’t have to go to space to see that but if you ain’t from the plains I can understand watching it from space instead of actually having to go to Missouri

  3. I recall watching a lightning storm in the early 1980s in Commerce, TX (northeast of Dallas). I guess it would be described as spider lightning but it was unlike any I had seen before or since in Texas. Very large, extremely active and covered most of the sky directly overhead. I remember describing the patterns as looking like shattered windshield glass. Radiating outward from the center. Incredible experience.

  4. Wow, that’s a pretty awesome video! What a huge storm.

    I’m not sure I understand the “streaks” in the Day Night Band. Do they mean the bits like the bright lines where OK meets MO? Cool image, anyway.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  5. I’ve seen that, as a lad of 15 or so in Northern Virginia in the 70s. Warm summer night, there were two main layers of thick clouds in the distance, with a column of clouds joining the two. Bolts of lightning were periodically shooting up and down the column. Then the entire sky lit up like a luminous spider web, seemingly from horizon to horizon, in both layers of clouds. Totally blew my mind, and remains to this day the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.

  6. I would far rather see money spent to harvest just a smidge of that energy, and stored, somehow, than wasting £$Tn’s on pathetic wind turbines.

      • William

        As long as Elon Musk holds the extension cord, I’ll be happy.

        I’ll be in the pub. :)

      • Yeah, and we thought high charge rates were already high. Imagine trying to build a battery array large enough to capture that energy, and how fast it would be charged.
        Maybe with a huge capacitor array to temporaily hold the charge and bleed into the batteries.
        I would want to be tens of miles from that system – at all times.

      • Wow. I should be drinking heavily to have written something so incomprehensible. I think this will be may last post, here. I’m embarrassing myself.
        I meant:
        Yeah, and we thought high charge rates were already rough on batteries. Imagine trying to build a battery array large enough to capture that energy, and how fast it would have to charge.
        Maybe with a huge capacitor array to temporarily hold the charge and bleed into the batteries.
        I would still want to be tens of miles from that system – at all times.

    • The amount of megawatthours is pathetic, though measuring in ‘households’ using a Gabonese standard might look better.

    • Do I need to point out that we need not actually harvest any smidgens, but only pretend to investigate the “science?” Robust. Think of the children. Send me a trillion or two.

  7. The American Midwest almost certainly has the most violent weather in the World. I’ve never seen any tropical thunderstorms that came even close to the ones in the Midwest. And also no other area comes even close to the power and frequency of tornadoes.

    This is what happens when you have a flat plain with no natural obstacles all the way from an Arctic to a Tropical ocean.

    By the way I’m not from the US so it’s not a matter of local pride.

    • Even US natives often make the mistake of referring to the Great Plains, as the Midwest.

      There was even a film reviewer of “August, Osage County” (Oklahoma,) who spoke of the story as taking place in the Midwest, while in the story line itself, Julia Roberts’ character chastised her husband’s referral to Oklahoma as being in the Midwest by saying, “Oh, please. This is the Plains”.

      You make a good point about the weather, here. Just 10 years ago, today, the highest wind speeds ever recorded, aided the destruction from the May 3rd, 1999 tornado which struck the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, at ~300 mph.

  8. Fascinating. What I would like to know is the mechanism that produces these high voltages to begin with. Obviously these potentials vary considerably in different sections of the cloud structure and the pathways between them probably has something to do with conductivity. Apart from this I am totally clueless.

    Can anyone explain?

    • The charge storage mechanism is Helmholtz double layer capacitance, arising at the interface between two phases of matter (water ice, air water). Supercapacitors use the same mechanism. The charge itself comes from friction (turbulence), no different than shuffling across a carpet in winter then shocking a doorknob.

  9. I’ve seen this type of lightning once in my lifetime, and it was truly a spectacular natural display. But what you don’t get from the pictures is the sound. it wasn’t just a loud crack like a single bolt of lightning, but a louder, longer KA-BOOM that shook me to my core every time.

  10. ” …. witnessed a frightening display of stratiform, or ‘spider’ lightning as it’s known …..”

    Let me rephrase that for you ……. ” witnessed an awesome natural display of stratiform, or ‘spider’ lightning as it’s known”

    I saw it once on the Florida Keys. Lay on the hood of my car for a couple of hours and watched non-stop display of horizontal streaks. Then there was a massive vertical column of storm cloud that had vertical lightening hopping around from fairly low altitudes to extremely high altitudes. One strike every 4 – 5 seconds or so for well over and hour. Then that massive column paid us a visit at the KOA campground for about an hour and wiped out every tent there as well as power for hours. Then another couple of hours of spider display. It was one of 2 of the most memorable lightening storms I have ever had the treat to witness. I’d trade another tent to see that again!

  11. I love watching lightning, especially at a safe distance :) In my experience, when you start seeing this “spider lightning”, the cell involved is dying, and while it looks spectacular, ground strikes become fewer and fewer – sometimes quite rapidly. New, vigorous cells have plentiful cloud-to-ground and cloud-to-cloud strikes, some of them very “hot” – but they typically do not exhibit the behavior described here.

  12. You can tell by the thunder whether a strike was cloud to ground or cloud to cloud by how long it lasts. Cloud to ground is one big boom pretty much all at once excepting for echoes of it in mountainous terrain. Cloud to cloud isn’t as abrupt or loud initially then lasts longer becoming less intense until the sound of the furthest point away has reached you, (what I call “rolling thunder”). It seems the only times I’ve ever heard cloud to cloud thunder is in the wee hours of the morning, (converging air masses with little convection going on?)

  13. What’s so “frightening” about lightning, or spider lightning? I just stay inside of my car, house or building. Or in the basement, if there are tornado threats.

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