Scientist finds intense lightning activity around a hurricane's eye

June 24, 2006
Cloud to Ground Lightning
Time-lapse photography captures multiple cloud-to-ground lightning strokes during a night-time thunderstorm. Credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

When you think of lightning, you think of a thunderstorm. Many people also assume that hurricanes have a lot of lightning because they are made up of hundreds of thunderstorms.

However, according to Dr. Richard Blakeslee of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., "Generally there's not a lot of lightning in the hurricane eye-wall region. So when people detect a lot of lightning in a hurricane, they perk up -- they say, okay, something's happening."

In 2005, scientists did perk up, because a very strong Hurricane Emily had some of the most lightning activity ever seen in a hurricane. Scientists are now trying to determine if the frequency of lightning is connected to the hurricane's strength.

In July of that year, NASA lightning researchers joined hurricane specialists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and 10 universities for a month-long Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes (TCSP) field experiment in Costa Rica. The purpose of the mission was to determine what weather, climate and other factors that helped create tropical storms and hurricanes. They also wanted to learn about what makes these storms strengthen. All of these organizations study lightning in hurricanes to get a better understanding of the strengthening or weakening (intensification) of the storms.

Hurricane Emily was one of three named storms (the others were Hurricane Dennis and Tropical Storm Gert) observed during the TCSP field experiment. Scientists flew NASA's ER-2 high-altitude weather plane above Emily, where they recorded some of the most powerful lightning activity ever seen in a hurricane's eye-wall. Emily was one of the largest, most violent hurricanes ever to be documented by the ER-2 plane.

During the flights, scientists detected both cloud-to-ground lightning strokes and cloud-to-cloud lightning in the thunderstorms surrounding Emily's eye. They also found that the "electric fields," or areas of the atmosphere that contained electricity above Hurricane Emily, were some the strongest ever recorded. "We observed steady fields in excess of 8 kilovolts (8,000 volts) per meter (3.2 feet)," says Blakeslee. "That is huge--and comparable to the strongest fields we would expect to find over a large land-based thunderstorm."

The field experiment concluded before the birth of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. However, scientists also observed significant lightning in the eye walls of hurricanes Katrina and Rita through long range ground-based lightning detection networks. That similarity has generated more interest in trying to understand the connection between lightning activity and hurricane development, intensification and behavior.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Explore further: Three most powerful hurricanes of 2005 were filled with mysterious lightning

Related Stories

NASA Lightning Research Happens in a Flash

August 4, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Lightning's connection to hurricane intensification has eluded researchers for decades, and for a riveting 40 days this summer, NASA lightning researchers will peer inside storms in a way they never have ...

NASA loosens GRIP on Atlantic hurricane season

October 6, 2010

NASA wrapped up one of its largest hurricane research efforts ever last week after nearly two months of flights that broke new ground in the study of tropical cyclones and delivered data that scientists will now be able to ...

New Faraway Sensors Warn of Emerging Hurricane's Strength

September 6, 2007

Days before a growing hurricane possibly batters a local coastline, meteorologists rush to predict just how strong its winds and rains may grow knowing that lives and an area’s economy may depend on their results. A new ...

NASA lightning research highlights safety awareness week

June 21, 2006

Lightning is four times hotter than the sun. That statement usually gets people's attention. It is also a good reason to be aware of the dangers of lightning, especially as the northern hemisphere is entering summertime.

Recommended for you

Sea ice extent sinks to record lows at both poles

March 22, 2017

Arctic sea ice appears to have reached on March 7 a record low wintertime maximum extent, according to scientists at NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. And on the opposite ...

Under the dead sea, warnings of dire drought

March 22, 2017

Nearly 1,000 feet below the bed of the Dead Sea, scientists have found evidence that during past warm periods, the Mideast has suffered drought on scales never recorded by humans—a possible warning for current times. Thick ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.