Discussing Lightning on The Uptime Wind Energy Podcast

I recently got the opportunity to discuss lightning with Allen Hall and Dan Blewett on The Upward Wind Energy Podcast. We talked about the evolved understanding of lightning and lightning behavior that high-speed cameras have enabled over the past 20 years, and our work on characterizing upward lightning from tall objects. We also discussed my time flying the T-28 Storm Penetrating Aircraft and that aircraft’s many contributions to thunderstorm research. The You Tube version is below or you can listen the audio podcast via Apple or Spotify.

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Lightning Highlights from 2021

Negative lightning leaders fill the sky over the South Dakota Black Hills

This year I was able to capture upward lightning flashes from a newly installed wind turbine complex northeast of Newell, South Dakota as well as lightning associated with the monsoon season in the Colorado Plateau. There were also some spectacular lightning displays in the my home area in the Northern High Plains. Below are some of the images captured.

Standard- and high-speed video highlights from the 2021 storm season are now available on my YouTube channel.

High-speed camera recordings of lightning from 2021
Upward lightning from wind turbines
Upward lightning from wind turbines (wide angle UHD)
Lightning recorded from an airplane
Standard-speed UHD video recordings of lightning from 2021

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Geminid Meteor Shower Highlights, 2021

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaked on December 13th and both our Global Meteor Network cameras were able to record data. Below are the video segments created by each of the cameras for the two nights surrounding the peak. In the second video captured from Chamberlain, South Dakota. The radiant in Gemini translates across the field of view during some of the peak activity.

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Partial Lunar Eclipse, 2021-11-19

In the early morning hours of November 19th, 2021, the fully illuminated moon passed through the Earth’s shadow. The moon did not pass entirely into the shadow reaching 97% percent coverage at max eclipse. Hence, this was a partial lunar eclipse. The fact that the moon was near apogee, the farthest distance from Earth in its elliptical orbit, meant that the moon was at its smallest as viewed from Earth. This also meant that the time it took to traverse the shadow was maximized.

At moonrise, high clouds blocked the moon, and it appeared the after midnight eclipse could be obscured. However, clouds cleared for the most part during the 12:19 – 03:47 am eclipse timeframe. I used a Paramount MYT telescope mount with a Nikon Z6 camera and Sigma 600mm lens to record the event. I also used a 1.4x teleconverter so the focal length was 840mm. I chose to only record UHD video and occasionally ventured outside in the subfreezing air to look at the spectacle with my own eyes. It was an amazing sight with Orion not far away.

Below is a timelapse video from the video recording. I also made a timelapse of my four low-light surveillance cameras to show how the light dimmed during the eclipse. The third video is the complete real-time recording which I have placed in my “Simply Being There” playlist. If you want to just watch the event as it took place, you can sit back an do so.

I am grateful that the clouds cleared out, and that I was able to see this wonderful wonderful event. Enjoy

Timelapse of the partial lunar eclipse during the early morning hours of November 19th. Recorded with a Nikon Z6 and Sigma 840mm lens riding on top of a Paramount MYT.
Timelapse from four low-light surveillance cameras at the ZT Research Observatory during the 97% partial lunar eclipse during the early morning hours of November 19th.
Real-time video of the partial lunar eclipse as seen from the ZT Research Observatory.

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Global Meteor Network Observations

Earlier this year, I joined the Global Meteor Network (GMN) in making scientific meteor observations using low light camera systems. I purchased two GMN camera systems and now manage these cameras which are located in Rapid City and Chamberlain, South Dakota. The cameras have overlapping fields of view which allows for orbit calculations for simultaneous captures of the same meteor. A dedicated website provides the latest overnight observations from all the cameras located around the world.

Last week, the Perseid meteor shower peaked, and South Dakota experienced clear skies for most of the nights in which Perseid meteor activity was clear visible. Based on radar and camera observations, there was an unexpected outburst from the Perseids between 0700-0900 UTC on August 14th. This was after the traditionally observed peak. Skies were clear in western South Dakota and the GMN cameras, along with my low light surveillance cameras at my observatory in Rapid City recorded this outburst.

I have posted highlights from the outburst on YouTube as well as the timelapse recordings from the GMN cameras.

Highlights of the Perseid meteor shower outburst as seen from Rapid City, South Dakota looking south through southwest between 0700-1000 UTC, 14 August 2021.
Timelapse from Global Meteor Nework camera US001U located in Rapid City, South Dakota looking southeast.
Radiant traces for recorded meteors on the night of 14 August 2021 UTC / US001U / Rapid City, South Dakota
Timelapse from Global Meteor Nework camera US001V located in Chamberlain, South Dakota looking southwest.
Radiant traces for recorded meteors on the night of 14 August 2021 UTC / US001V / Chamberlain, South Dakota

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Lightning Highlights from 2020

For the 2020 storm season, I remained in Rapid City, South Dakota. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I chose to document storms either alone or with my daughter while isolating from the general public. Most of my high-speed cameras are currently in Johannesburg, South Africa as part of an ongoing research project, so this year I focused on the artistic side of lightning and storms. I did utilize a Phantom M321 camera which is a color camera capable of recording at 1920×1080 at 1,500 images per second along with digital still, 4K video cameras and various GoPro cameras recording timelapse or at 240 images per second. My goal was to focus on sites that are scenic and iconic South Dakota landmarks such as Bear Butte and the Badlands.

Overall, it was a rather active year with storms displaying typical behavior for the northern High Plains. This means that storms produced a large number of positive cloud-to-ground flashes which is common here. This is especially true when targeting the trailing part of organized mesoscale convective systems. I only documented one upward lightning flash from the towers in Rapid City, however, the towers were not my primary focus.

Below is a summary video showcasing the lightning that my daughter and I captured. There were some beautiful flashes captured with the high-speed camera and some stunning sunsets and scenery…a positive outcome from a rather challenging and concerning year for all of us. I hope that all who read this stay safe and healthy both physically and mentally. It is also my hope that by next summer, we are in a much better situation.

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“Optical Observations of Needles in Upward Lightning Flashes” published in Nature Scientific Reports

Our latest peer-reviewed journal paper “Optical Observations of Needles in Upward Lightning Flashes” was published on 15 Oct 2020. It is open access and available for download at the link below.

Paper download

The paper describes how attempted branches on positive leader channels can pulse well after the leader tip continues propagating away. These pulsing features are defined as “needles” and in rare cases, they can develop into a negative leader branch.

Figure showing a pulsing needle on a positive leader channel that develops into a negative leader branch

The online version of the paper which includes supplementary video can be found at this link.

Saba, M.M.F., A. R. de Paiva, L. C. Concollato, T. A. Warner and C. Schumann (2020), Optical observation of needles in upward lightning flashes. Sci Rep 10, 17460 (2020) doi:10.1038/s41598-020-74597-6

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Sunset lightning in the South Dakota Badlands

On the evening of Saturday, 23 May 2020 a strong linear storm passed over the South Dakota Badlands. As the sun began to set, the stunning orange and pink light illuminated the backside of the storm and its trailing stratiform precipitation area. As is common with mesoscale convective systems, this backside region produced numerous horizontally extensive lightning flashes many of which contained positive cloud-to-ground return strokes. Also common with these types of flashes, negative leaders raced through the layered positive charge regions above cloud base, while trailing positive leaders propagated below cloud base in trail of the negative leaders presumably through negative screening layer charge or negatively charge rain. This spectacular “spider” lightning is my personal favorite and this spectacle was one I will not soon forget. My daughter and I filmed the flashes with every camera we had available and the video below shows our best captures. Recordings were made from 30 to 1,500 images per second.

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Close Negative Ground Flash While Driving

Captured a close negative ground flash while driving near Guernsey, Wyoming on 19 May 2020. You can hear the thunder on the dash cam in about a second after the flash. Recorded with the Phantom M321S at 1,500 images per second. In the frame prior to the return stroke, there appears to be a dim connection to the downward leader and ground. This is a camera artifact due to the saturating bright return stroke recorded in the following image (frame). The brightness “bleeds” over into the previous frame making it appear there is a connection or upward connecting leader present when in fact it is not.

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Negative Leaders from Positive Leader Channels

Just as we have documented positive leaders developing from negative leader channels, we have also observed and analyzed negative leaders develop from positive leader channels. However, the physical process is noticeably different as it involves the development of recoil leaders in decayed positive leaders. Negative cloud-to-ground return strokes can occur during the horizontal propagation of positive leaders when the positive leaders decay and become cutoff from their original negative ends. A recoil leaders that develops along the positive leader channel paths can have its negative ends “veer off” the previously ionized channel and travel to ground via negative breakdown through virgin air causing a negative return stroke. The growing positive leader that follows the return stroke frequently decays with additional recoil leaders forming. The negative end of subsequent recoil leaders travel down the newly established channel path to ground, since it is more conductive due to its more recent ionization, causing additional negative return strokes resulting in repeated extension and growth of the horizontal positive leader end.

It is sometimes possible to recognize this type of flash solely from digital still imagery due to the geometry and shape captured during a single exposure. Below is a digital still image of the flash shown in the video above. The negative leader development that traveled to ground from the decayed positive leader channel displays recognizable negative leader patterns (erratic direction change and branching) and the brightness of the return stroke illuminates the channel back to the positive leader end which is in the left portion of the image. Notice the left curve where the negative leader return stroke channel joins the positive leader channel. If the downward negative leader was simply a branch of the initial horizontal propagating negative leader there would have been a right curve in the bright channel segment that traveled back in the direction from which the leader initially propagated (to the right).

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