About 1.4 billion lightning bolts strike the Earth each year. Around 40 million of those hit the ground in the United States, and, according to Vaisala Weather’s annual report, Alabama had a total of nearly 6.5 million lightning strikes in 2022.
“Everybody has got a story related to lightning,” says Dr. Phillip Bitzer, a lightning physicist and associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Earth Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). “And yet we still don’t have answers to some fundamental questions about it.”
That’s what first sparked the New Orleans native’s interest in the subject. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, as a first-year graduate student, Bitzer attended a talk about how lightning was being used to better forecast the onset of severe weather events like hail, strong winds and tornadoes. He remembers wondering if the same measurements could be used to help predict hurricanes and tropical storms. “The answer then was, ‘We don’t know yet,’” Bitzer says, but he knew he wanted to be a part of efforts to learn more.
Bitzer earned his Ph.D. in physics at UAH and has served on the faculty since 2011.
For nearly 10 years, Bitzer has worked on team projects in Panama, in partnership with ecologists at the University of Louisville and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies as well as researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, to study the impact of lightning strikes on tropical forests.
“We’re trying to understand what happens when lightning strikes a tree,” Bitzer explains. “So, what would cause a tree to die, how long it would take and why some trees die and some trees don’t.” In fact, he adds, not only do some trees survive lightning strikes, some actually appear to thrive.
“There are a lot of implications for what this means in terms of how the climate is responding and how the forest responds to lightning,” says Bitzer.
For example, when a tree is struck by lightning and dies, it releases carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. The dying tree also provides an opportunity for the forest to replenish itself, and as it dies back others take its place.
But the effects of lightning strikes on tropical forests can be tricky to observe.
“When lightning strikes a tree [in the tropics], you don’t know it right away,” he says. “There’s no obvious visible damage, and it can be days, weeks or even months before you start to see the damage.”
The team uses a network of electric field charge meters and a network of CCTV cameras to monitor lightning strikes in the forest and use those to locate trees that have been struck and assess the damage.
Bitzer describes himself as an “instrument guy,” and the Panama project uses instruments very similar to one he helped create, the Huntsville Alabama Marx Meter Array (HAMMA) that detects lightning from a group of instruments located in and around the Huntsville area. In addition to Panama, related arrays also have been placed in Argentina.
Bitzer and a team of UAH colleagues collaborated with Lockheed Martin to develop the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) that is currently monitoring lightning from space and a lightning imaging sensor (LIS) developed with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center that is in use on the International Space Station and previously flew as part of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission.
Lightning data collected from multiple perspectives is something Bitzer’s colleague Dr. Sarah Stough, a research associate and part-time lecturer at UAH, is also using in her research.
“Lightning is a really important byproduct of thunderstorms,” says Stough, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at UAH, where she focused on the relationship between rapid increases in the amount of lightning in thunderstorms and their intensification prior to severe weather production and, later, the development of unusual electrical structures in thunderstorms.
Stough is the principal investigator for a team that won a 2022 NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) proposal to study lightning in deep convection from airborne, ground-based and satellite instruments.
Stough says that, while a lot can be learned from ground-based lightning observations, adding space-based detection can provide a much bigger and broader picture about the nature of a thunderstorm, its level of severity, whether or not it is intensifying and, ultimately, how it is likely to impact people.
Stough’s collaborators include Bitzer and a team of research associates from UAH’s Earth System Science Center as well as civil servants from NASA. The three-year project is funded for more than $400,000 and will fully support a graduate student researcher in the department of atmospheric and earth science.
“We’re really excited about getting started,” says Stough. “It’s a big undertaking to look at data in ways we haven’t really peeled it apart before.”
Bitzer and Stough also bring their research to the classroom where they are teaching the next generation of meteorologists and atmospheric scientists.
The quantity of innovative lightning research being conducted at UAH is the main reason why UAH Research Associate Kelley Murphy decided to take a job opportunity with the university after completing her master’s degree out of state.
Murphy’s work particularly centers on lightning and its impact on human safety. Currently she is focusing on finding new ways to use lightning data from ground-based and spaceborne instruments as part of the Short-term Prediction Research and Transition (SPoRT) center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Established in 2002, SPoRT collaborates with researchers, innovators and stakeholders from government, academia and the private sector to develop and improve the application of NASA research and data in the operational weather community. That includes developing lightning safety products to help people monitor for the threat of lightning.
Murphy, who has also been a member of SPoRT’s Engagement Training and Assessment Team for a little over a year, helps transition lightning research and products to end users like the National Weather Service. This past summer she worked with operational weather forecasters while they used lightning safety products to monitor the threat of lightning at an outdoor concert in Cullman.
“We collected their feedback, which enabled us to tailor the lightning products for them, such as making small tweaks to the way data were displayed,” she explains. “Their feedback can also help us by sparking new ideas for continued lightning research.”
Using lightning prediction technology to keep people safe at outdoor events resonates with Murphy, who played soccer growing up and in college. She remembers as a goalkeeper being able to see storms build but that games often wouldn’t be canceled until the first flashes of lightning were visible or thunder was heard.
“My interest in weather merged with what I did for fun, and I wanted to answer those types of questions: How do we know when it’s safe for people to be on a soccer field or even just be outdoors when storms are nearby? I’ve always been drawn to research that has a direct impact or connection to people, and really nobody can argue that weather doesn’t impact them.”
Bitzer, Stough and Murphy are quick to point out that they are just three members of a larger team of lightning researchers at UAH. For example, Bitzer points to UAH scientists serving on NASA’s Lightning Advisory Panel to develop and improve the Lightning Launch Commit Criteria and UAH researchers who are helping the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) develop its own lightning launch criteria.
“We’re really just starting to scratch the surface with what we do here [at UAH],” says Bitzer. “Everything from basic instrument development to applying what we learn to keeping people safe, it really is a broad spectrum. When you think of something about lightning, there is probably someone here that has looked at it or is currently looking at it.”
Katherine MacGilvray is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.