Earth’s New Lightning Capital Revealed

lightning_0Earth has a new lightning capital, according to a recent study using observations from the Lightning Imaging Sensor onboard NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission.

Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela earned the top spot receiving an average rate of about 233 flashes per square kilometer per year, according to the study. Researchers had previously identified Africa’s Congo Basin as the location of maximum lightning activity.

The research team constructed a very high resolution data set derived from 16 years of space-based LIS observations to identify and rank lightning hotspots. They described their research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

“We can now observe lightning flash rate density in very fine detail on a global scale,” said Richard Blakeslee, LIS project scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “Better understanding of lightning activity around the world enables policy makers, government agencies and other stakeholders to make more informed decisions related to weather and climate.”

Blakeslee joined forces with lightning researchers at the University of São Paulo, the University of Maryland, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alabama in Huntsville to understand where and when most lightning occurs. Their findings will help forecasters and researchers better understand lightning and its connections to weather and other phenomena.

“Lake Maracaibo has a unique geography and climatology that is ideal for the development of thunderstorms,” said Dennis Buechler with the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

(Daytime and nighttime lightning flash rate density at Lake Maracaibo (top) and Lake Victoria (bottom). White lines represent elevation, and gray lines are country physical boundaries. Credits: University of São Paulo)

(Daytime and nighttime lightning flash rate density at Lake Maracaibo (top) and Lake Victoria (bottom). White lines represent elevation, and gray lines are country physical boundaries.
Credits: University of São Paulo)

Buechler noted that Lake Maracaibo is not new to lightning researchers. Located in northwest Venezuela along part of the Andes Mountains, it is the largest lake in South America. Storms commonly form there at night as mountain breezes develop and converge over the warm, moist air over the lake. These unique conditions contribute to the development of persistent deep convection resulting in an average of 297 nocturnal thunderstorms per year, peaking in September.

Africa remains the continent with the most lightning hotspots, according to the study, home to six of the world’s top ten sites for lightning activity. The majority of the hotspots were by Lake Victoria and other lakes along the East African Rift Valley, which have a similar geography to Lake Maracaibo.

The study also confirmed earlier findings that concentrated lightning activity tends to happen over land and reduced lightning activity over oceans and that continental lightning peaks generally in the afternoon.

“Our research using LIS observations in new ways is a prime example of how NASA partners with scientists all over the world to better understand and appreciate our home planet,” said Blakeslee.

Developed at Marshall, LIS detects the distribution and variability of total lightning – cloud-to-cloud, intracloud, and cloud to ground – that occurs in the tropical regions of the globe. LIS uses a specialized, high-speed imaging system to look for changes in the optical output caused by lightning in the tops of clouds. By analyzing a narrow wavelength band around 777 nanometers — which is in the near-infrared region of the spectrum – the sensors can spot brief lightning flashes even under bright daytime conditions that swamp out the small lightning signal.

The team at Marshall that created LIS in the mid-1990s built a spare — and now that second unit is stepping up to contribute, as well. The sensor is scheduled to launch on a Space Exploration Technologies rocket to the International Space Station in August 2016.

Headline image: NASA


State of Emergency Declared in Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada as 88,000 Residents Evacuate City Due to Wildfire

The out of control fire in Alberta, Canada has now grown to 328 square miles, bigger than New York City. The fire has forced the evacuation of 88,000 people in Fort McMurray and surrounding areas. More than 1000 firefighters are battling the blaze as it threatens oil production and local airport. The Prime Minister promised to match all donations to the Red Cross relief effort.

By 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the entire city was under a mandatory evacuation order in the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history, quickly surpassing the Slave Lake fire that made international headlines five years ago. The Slave Lake fire ended up being the costliest wildfire in the state’s history.

The worst of the fire is not over at this point. Wednesday’s weather will bring another round of very strong winds, low relative humidity and abnormally high temperatures for this time of year.

It was reported earlier that the federal department may offer airlift and other transportation support for firefighting, as well as logistical help.

There are firefighters, aircraft and heavy equipment working on the wildfire and more resources are on their way however high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds continue to fuel the fire. The image shows the area almost completely obliterated by the clouds of smoke rising from the fire. The smoke released by any type of fire (forest, brush, crop, structure, tires, waste or wood burning) is a mixture of particles and chemicals produced by incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter (PM or soot). Smoke can contain many different chemicals, including aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, styrene, metals and dioxins.

The type and amount of particles and chemicals in smoke varies depending on what is burning, how much oxygen is available, and the burn temperature. Exposure to high levels of smoke should be avoided. Individuals are advised to limit their physical exertion if exposure to high levels of smoke cannot be avoided. Individuals with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions (e.g., asthma), fetuses, infants, young children, and the elderly may be more vulnerable to the health effects of smoke exposure.

(Headline image: natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite on May 03, 2016. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. )

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