Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.First we need to talk about how lightning forms. When the Sun heats the Earth's surface, air and moisture rise and create water droplets. With enough solar energy, the warm, wet air keeps rising and rising, while the same time, cold air in the system is sinking—leading to a swirling mass called a deep convective cloud, which builds electrical charges that escalate into lightning. Usually Arctic air doesn’t hold enough heat to get all that convection. But in these times of climate change, nothing is normal anymore.Luckily for Vaisala, lightning betrays itself in a number of ways. We humans know it by the flash of light and the deafening sound, but what our bodies don’t notice is that the massive electrical current of a lightning strike generates radio bursts. For a fleeting moment, a lightning bolt works like a giant, rambunctious radio tower. “If you have a lightning discharge that hits the ground, you might have a channel of charge that's a few miles long,” says Ryan Said, a research scientist at Vaisala. “And that essentially acts as a temporary antenna in the sky.”
Not that this signal is easy to parse, mind you. You’ve got to account for the reflections off the ionosphere, for instance. So the bulk of the company’s effort, Said explains, “is devoted to properly interpreting those signals so that we can extract reliable information from them.”
Reliability is paramount, because it’s not just the National Weather Service that uses Vaisala’s data. Airports appreciate knowing if a thunderstorm is incoming to plan for delays or cease fueling operations. The system can even work on a forensic level too, perhaps to discern if a lightning strike may have started a wildfire.
So if lightning thinks it can just strike willy-nilly and still escape notice, it’s got another thing coming.
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