Research Briefs

Using satellites to keep planes safe from lightning

Lightning flashing from clouds down to the ground.

(image ©UCAR).

A team of NCAR scientists is studying how advanced satellite technology that measures lightning could help protect aircraft from turbulence caused by severe weather.

Pilots flying over remote regions of the globe, especially above the oceans, have limited tools for detecting the location of severe weather. Satellite data can be their primary, and sometimes only, source of observations.

Two new satellite technologies scheduled for launch in the next few years—the NASA Global Precipitation Measurement mission and the NOAA GOES-R with the Geostationary Lightning Mapper—will provide new data on lightning and monitor it on a hemispheric scale. The NCAR team, led by Cathy Kessinger and Wiebke Deierling, is researching how these lightning measurements could be used to help pilots detect and avoid hazardous regions of convection, as the presence of lightning in a storm indicates that the storm has attained at least the minimum updraft strength to threaten aircraft.

The team undertook a case study to examine the relationship between lightning and aviation hazards, presenting its research at the American Meteorological Society’s 2010 Conference on Satellite Meteorology and Oceanography. The case study, which focuses on a storm in the southeastern United States on May 28, 2008, analyzes lightning data captured by radars and ground-based sensors along with data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, which passed overhead at the time. Results showed that, after the convection initiated and was growing toward a mature stage, the amount of cloud-to-ground lightning increased as the turbulence intensity also increased, likely following the progression of the updraft intensity. These preliminary results indicate some potential for using lightning data to predict turbulence.

The team plans to complete more case studies looking at the relationship between lightning and turbulence. “If we can understand this before the Geostationary Lightning Mapper goes into orbit, then we’ll be able to use data from the instrument to help predict turbulence in areas that don’t have ground-based lightning sensors, such as the oceans,” Kessinger says.