Brian Dunbar Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1547


September 25, 1995

Steve Roy Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL (Phone: 205/544-0034) RELEASE: 95-160 NASA INSTRUMENT ILLUMINATES LINKS BETWEEN LIGHTNING, TORNADOES A NASA lightning detector is intriguing scientists with the possibility of identifying the formation of tornadoes and severe storms from space. Research scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, using data from the Optical Transient Detector (OTD), are building a global picture of the role of lightning in the atmosphere, including lightning produced by large storms. These data are significant because the "flashrate" of lightning may provide, in conjunction with other detection systems, an indication of the formation of tornadoes. Launched April 3 aboard a Pegasus rocket, NASA's OTD has been observing lightning flashes as it passes over severe storms. Taking advantage of the perspective from orbit, the detector gives researchers a much more comprehensive view of lightning generated by severe storms than is generally available from ground observations. On April 17, as the OTD passed over a severe storm in Oklahoma, the rate of lightning flashes peaked at more than 60 per second, 40 seconds into the satellite's pass. The flash rate then decreased, and approximately one minute after the pass, observers saw a tornado touch the ground,

said Dr. Hugh Christian, Principal Investigator of the OTD at Marshall's Global Hydrology and Climate Center. Overall, the instrument detected almost 200 lightning flashes during its three-minute pass. In contrast, the ground-based National Lightning Network, which detects only cloud to ground flashes, located nine flashes during the same period. This large difference suggests the tornadic storm was producing primarily intracloud lightning. -more-2"We saw much more intense lightning activity produced by these clouds than was observed on the ground, both before and during tornado formation," explained Christian. "In the next months we plan to perform detailed studies on the relationship between intracloud lightning and the formation of severe weather." The increasing, then decreasing, lightning-flash rates produced by the Oklahoma storm may mirror the life cycle of the air mass of storms and might be an indication of the onset of downdrafts occurring before a tornado is formed, according to Christian. "While the Optical Transient Detector is a technological demonstration and is being used for ongoing lightning studies, it certainly provides a 'tantalizing carrot' of future lightning-detection possibilities," said Christian. "Further research and the experience gained with this lightning instrument could help develop sensors for real-time severe weather warnings and assist with identification of the formation of tornadoes." Data from the OTD are being analyzed by scientists located at the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville. Data are processed in the climate center's Optical Transient Detector Science Computer Facility and will be archived and distributed in the Earth Observing Systems Data Information System.

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