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WeatherBug Lightning and Severe Weather Warning Systems

Amena Ali, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Earth Networks – WeatherBug talks to AZoSensors about the WeatherBug Lightning and Severe Weather Warning Systems.

WeatherBug by Earth Networks has been selected for its lightning, detection and severe weather alerting technology at Lee County Public Schools in Fort Myers, Florida. Can you discuss the technology and inspiration for this monitoring system?

While most people know about the danger of cloud-to-ground lightning, the vast majority of lightning takes place in the clouds. This in-cloud lightning serves as a key indicator of severe weather, including heavy rain, large hail, dangerous cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, tornadoes and downburst winds. In fact, in-cloud lightning can precede cloud-to-ground flashes by 5–30 minutes.

We operate the world’s largest weather and total lightning networks. Our lightning network detects total lightning, both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground. By tracking in-cloud lightning, we can see critical, early indications of extreme weather and provide faster alerting. As we have often seen, minutes matter when it comes to severe weather warnings. Advanced notification of dangerous weather conditions can mean the difference between seeking shelter indoors or remaining in harm’s way.

Can you explain how this weather and lightning monitoring system works?

Differentiating cloud-to-ground and in-cloud lightning is critical in assessing storm development and the potential for severe weather. To accurately locate and tell the difference between cloud-to-ground and in-cloud lightning, the total lightning sensors in our network use time-of-arrival detection and GPS technology to apply sophisticated algorithms on the entire waveform for every stroke. The sensors’ high-frequency range also increases timing and location accuracy. By using our total lightning data, we track lightning cells in real-time, minute-by-minute and mile-by-mile and can issue alerts when a high frequency of lightning is detected by our network.

Annually, there are estimated to be hundreds of injuries and deaths that occur as a direct result of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. This indicates a need for a more accurate and reliable weather monitoring system to prevent harm to local civilians. How do you see the severe weather warning alerting technology meeting the requirements as an accurate and reliable solution?

Cloud-to-ground lightning seriously injures or even kills thousands of people every year around the world. As we’ve seen time and time again, student athletes are far too frequently among those whose lives are seriously impaired or tragically cut short due to lightning strikes. Earlier warning to lightning and severe weather via multiple methods via outdoor horns, mobile phones and desktop computers, for example, will help more people stay safe.

When it comes to schools, our monitoring and alerting system takes the guesswork out of when to cancel or postpone outdoor activities. For example, when lightning approaches schools and athletic facilities equipped with our alerting technology, teachers, staff, students and visitors – and even residents in surrounding communities – will hear a very loud siren from our outdoor alerting system. When the siren sounds, people know to go indoors.

Can you describe the various sensors and components involved in making early detection possible?

First, there is the sensor component. We operate the world’s largest network of commercial-grade weather stations, including 10,000 of our own sensors available only to our users. These onsite weather stations measure conditions including temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation, humidity and more. Our total lightning sensors monitor activity in real-time, and are deployed worldwide as part of the Earth Networks Total Lightning Network, the largest and most advanced lightning network for detecting both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning.

Second, there is the alerting component. Our outdoor alerting systems, which are frequently used by schools, golf courses, resorts, stadiums and other outdoor venues, automatically produce high-decibel signals when in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning enters a predetermined radius. Our WeatherBug mobile applications provide the current forecast right from the on-site weather station, and proactively alert via mobile phones and tablet computers.

Third, there are the algorithms and cloud computing capabilities that work “behind the scenes” by processing millions of pieces of data every second and delivering that information in the form of weather conditions, forecasts and alerts to millions of our customers in real time. It’s important to note that it’s not possible to predict where lightning will strike. It is, however, possible to detect total lightning in the atmosphere, use this data to determine that severe weather is approaching and issue alerts based on this technology faster than any other weather provider.

What are the main parameters measured by the weather sensors in your network?

The weather sensors in our network measure and report over 20 weather parameters – including wind speed and direction, barometric pressure and rain rates – in real-time, every couple of seconds. This data is absolutely critical during a major weather event, such as a hurricane or a typhoon. For example, in October 2012 during Hurricane Sandy in the U.S., our weather sensors provided local, neighborhood-level information along the path of a storm to help people and professionals – including state and local governments, emergency response managers and others – anticipate weather impacts for better decision making.

The lightning sensors to be placed on each school are part of the world’s largest lightning network. Geographically, how will application of the sensor technology in Fort Myers reflect how this system can be used globally in various locations prone to lightning strikes?

The lightning sensors being deployed in the Fort Myers, Florida area, like hundreds of others we have deployed worldwide, have a detection range that exceeds 1,000 kilometers, or hundreds of miles. This dense network ensures detection efficiencies and, with data from our weather sensors, can provide advanced warning to approaching severe weather, including cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, and other dangerous conditions, such as heavy rain, high wind and even tornadoes.

Our alerting system can be deployed wherever lightning and other forms of severe weather threaten lives and livelihoods. For example, we deployed a dense lightning detection network throughout Brazil in partnership with Brazilian officials. This network and related technologies are generating alerts for dangerous thunderstorms and creating radar-like views of the weather.

In the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia, we have become accustomed to weather warnings. Yet billions of people in many parts of the world have never even received a severe weather alert. Our real-time weather and lightning networks, combined with supercomputing power and cloud computing, can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of traditional radar, yet deliver much of the same information and alerts people need to make better decisions and stay safe. Access to timely, localized weather data and warnings is especially critical at a time when we are seeing so much extreme weather around the world endangering lives almost daily.

How will the detection of lightning through your global sensor network further the understanding of lightning in the atmosphere?

Many researchers have long suggested that the lightning rate within the hurricane eyewall is a leading indicator of hurricane strength. In the past, researchers have examined lightning activity within hurricanes by looking at ground flashes or unusually large cloud flashes, or by using satellite data that can only provide limited information with each overpass.

During Hurricane Irene in August 2011, we were able to monitor lightning inside the eyewall of the hurricane using detailed data captured by our total lightning network. We were then able to show the connection between lightning and the increasing strength of the storm.

Without a doubt, more weather and lightning data will further increase our knowledge of what goes on in the atmosphere. We’re extremely excited that scores of researchers at highly regarded universities and scientific institutions around the world are working with our global lightning data to help further academic research.

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