The View of Lightning from Outer Space

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When Florida Tech Ph.D. candidate Levi Boggs’ paper, “Thunderstorm charge structures producing gigantic jets,” was published last December, it was key research in efforts to better predict gigantic jet lightning strikes, which is a rare type of lightning that exits the top of the thunderstorm and connects with outer space.

Boggs’ newest research furthers the possibility of predicting these exotic lightning strikes – with a decidedly different vantage point.

The Florida Tech researcher, who is a Ph.D candidate under Dr. Hamid K. Rassoul in the Aerospace, Physics, and Space Sciences department, along with researchers from Florida Tech, the University of New Hampshire, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, have analyzed gigantic jet lightning from 20,000 miles high utilizing NASA’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). The GLM is a satellite-borne single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector on the GOES-16 satellite, allowing for the first ever lightning detection recorded from geostationary orbit.

Prior to using the GLM, the main tool available to see this special type of lightning was ground-based video cameras.  But, clear images were difficult to get due to the high volume of clouds produced with the type of storms that generate this lightning and the guessing involved in determining where best to point the camera.

Boggs hopes the space-based observations allow him to identify better locations for placing ground-based high-speed cameras, which will allow detailed study of the unique upward gigantic jet lightning.

Utilizing the GLM has already proven to be successful for Boggs and his team. When Tropical Storm Harvey passed south of Puerto Rico in 2017, Frankie Lucena, an amateur photographer, captured multiple gigantic jets with a ground-based camera. Boggs and his team used those ground-based video images to locate the gigantic jets in data from the GLM, and they discovered the gigantic jets had distinguishable signatures from ordinary lightning. 

Video Credit: Frank Lucena

Boggs determined these GLM signatures of gigantic jet lightning have long and bright pulses, distinguishing them from the shorter and weaker pulses of regular lightning. The optical energy was also extremely concentrated among the gigantic jet lightning, showing up as a stationary pixel on the GLM rather than multiple pixels seen with regular strikes.

His new work with the GLM will look to forecast where the gigantic jet lightning is located.

“The next step would be to write algorithms, and that way going forward we could take a five-month period and potentially we could find all the gigantic jet detections during that period,” Boggs said.

Through advancing how and where we gain data on gigantic jet lightning, Boggs said researchers and others may someday be able to predict gigantic jet lightning strikes based off an area or a certain cloud type.

“If we have a bigger data set where we know a gigantic jet occurred, or we’re really confident, we can go back to other data sources, such as satellite data with infrared or radar data, and study those storm types. Then we could really get a lot more accurate in predicting which storms produce gigantic jets,” he said.

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I write and record video about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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