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Computers May Predict Lightning Strikes

From Associated Press

The deaths of spectators at the U.S. Open and PGA golf tournaments this summer illustrate the danger and power of a lightning strike.

Knowing where a bolt might strike next could save lives and thousands of dollars for consumers. Morever, the profit in tracking lightning with pinpoint accuracy has sparked the creation of two competing national networks.

Both say they can send a computer alert of a nearby lightning strike faster than the time it takes the sound of accompanying thunder to reach a listener.

The two-year-old National Lightning Detection Network, operated and marketed by Dynatech Corp. of Burlington, Mass., tracks potentially dangerous lightning in the 48 states and parts of Canada and Mexico.

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“Lightning kills more people than tornadoes and hurricanes combined,” said Pat Zumbusch, president of GeoMet Data, the Tucson, Ariz.-based subsidiary of Dynatech that runs the network.

It emerged through research at the University of New York in Albany and the consolidation of several regional detection networks.

“It just happens to be pretty,” Zumbusch said of lightning. “Everyone thinks it’s sporadic, which it is, but that doesn’t lessen the danger.”

Another new network, Atmospheric Research Systems of Palm Bay, Fla., uses slightly different technology with 66 sensors. Since July 2, it supplied about 100 clients with lightning data, said William Highlands, director of projects. The cost is about $300 a month, he said.

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In conjunction with Zephyr Weather Communications of Westborough, Mass., the company also has developed an “Electric Mill Field.”

“It detects the static potential in the air which lets you know the possibility of lightning,” Highlands said.

For a $7,000 annual fee, a company can hook into the National Lightning Detection Network of 120 electromagnetic sensor poles, stationed around the country. Each can detect a lightning strike from up to 175 miles away, Zumbusch said.

Through satellites and high-speed communications technology, the sensors relay information to a central computer. The computer then alerts the company’s own computer to the location of a strike almost anywhere in the United States, Zumbusch said.

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“You see a dot on that computer screen and you can be 99.9 percent sure that’s lightning,” Dynatech spokesman Steve Cantor said.

Neither system predicts exactly where a bolt will hit next. Rather, they record spots where lightning is striking. This alerts clients to active electric storms and allows them to monitor their movement with a greater degree of accuracy than normal weather reports alone.

Potential clients range from the forestry service, which can dispatch crews to the site of lightning strikes without waiting for telltale smoke, to construction companies who need to protect workers.

Airlines may be more able to more selectively shut down in the face of storm threats. Air express mail services, which lose $5,000 for every minute they are shut down, may especially benefit, Zumbusch said.

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Ron Holle, research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., said consumers could benefit from the system by lower power bills.

Utilities could be alerted to electronically active storm fronts and could reroute power grids or have crews standing up, reducing costs from lost power, Holle said.

“There are thousands of applications,” Holle said.

Holle estimates there are about 20 million lightning strikes a year in this country. Just 20 to 40 percent are visible from the ground.

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Anywhere from 85 to 200 people a year are killed by lightning; by comparison, 50 to 100 are killed in tornadoes and 10 to 15 in hurricanes, said Holle, citing national insurance figures.

The insurance industry estimates about $350 million in property damage a year is caused by lightning, he said.

Recreation centers, like golf courses, could patch into a detection network to alert customers of incoming storms, Highlands said

Although warnings of an approaching storm had been posted Thursday on the opening day of the PGA Championship at the Crooked Stick Golf Course in Carmel, Ind., a man was hit by a lightning bolt as he walked to his car. A spectator at June’s U.S. Open in Minnesota also was killed by lightning during one of several storms that plagued that tournament.

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Lightning is caused by the discharge of atmospheric electricity from one cloud to another or between a cloud and earth. Yet lightning remains a mysterious phenomenon, producing folklore and anecdotes.

“Everybody has a lightning story,” Zumbusch noted.


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