Archive for category Negative Leaders

World’s Largest Tesla coil at the Tesla Science Center

The world’s largest Tesla coil in action at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, New York
Nikola Tesla’s birthday celebration at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, New York

On September 17th, I got a chance to see the world’s largest Tesla coil in operation at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe which is located in Shoreham, New York. As part of a belated birthday celebration of Nikola Tesla’s 166th birthday, which was on July 10th, Greg Leyh (@LightningOD on Twitter) operated his 40 ft tall Tesla coil in a spectacular and educational demonstration. The Tesla coil is a 1/3rd scale prototype for his endeavor to build two 121 ft tall Tesla coils. At his website, Lightning On Demand, you can read about the science behind this project and the objectives he hopes to achieve.

During the demonstration, Greg first had selected members of the audience hold onto fluorescent bulbs. He slowly raised the surrounding electric field by activating the coil and soon the bulbs lit up in their hands. Next he operated his own “Original Tesla Roadster” which used the invisible electric field to power a motor onboard the small “go kart sized” three wheeled buggy.

Turning things up a notch, Greg then demonstrated “Saint Elmo’s Fire” which is a cold corona discharge that occurs on pointed objects when the electric field reaches a certain breakdown threshold. These faint blue/purple arcs of light are cold streamers formed when that air ionizes without enough energy to cause significant thermal energy from kinetic collisions. The light comes from emissions during molecular and atom recombination or primarily nitrogen and oxygen after ionization or excitation to higher energy states.

He then demonstrated how these static discharges can ignite gasoline but not diesel fuel, followed by an impressive ignition of gun powder and hydrogen filled balloons.

Corona discharge ignites gun powder

Turning things up once again, Greg increased the voltage output of the Tesla coil and brilliant arcs finally began leaping from the Tesla coil itself as the air broke down under the electric stress produced by the tuned oscillators and coils. He zapped a long piece of wood which burst into flames as the power increased. His assistants then hoisted a human wood cutout holding an umbrella that had a covering of metal mesh spread out across its top. The Tesla coil struck the metal mesh which acted as a Faraday cage protecting the wood cutout below. After the metal mesh was removed, the arc did not hesitate to propagate down to the wood cutout burning a scar with ease.

A large piece of wood ignites as the Tesla coil arc connect
Arcs strike the metal mesh draped across the top of an umbrella.
Arcs strike the unprotected umbrella and wooden cutout.

I first met Greg in 2008 when he asked me if I could film his then smaller Tesla coils using my high-speed camera. I jumped at the opportunity and filmed them in action in San Francisco at recording speeds up to 66,000 images per second. The high-speed recordings, timelapes and integrated image stacks are below.

Greg’s three Tesla coils in San Francisco when I filmed them in action on Dec 17th, 2008

I learned then that Greg likes to run things until they break, and he did just that with his biggest coil in San Francisco. I suspected he would do the same at the Tesla Science Center, and sure enough he kept increasing the power to see what happens. Arcs shot up to the sky and down to the ground to the delight of all.

Me (right) with Greg Leyh, owner and operator of the world’s largest Tesla coil.

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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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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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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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Positive Leaders from Negative Leader Channels

We know from observation and analysis of horizontally extensive lightning flashes that often negative leaders travel horizontally through a layered positive charge region that spans large areas. We frequently observe that positive cloud-to-ground return strokes occur along the path the negative leaders travel but in trail of the negative leader tips. Current thinking is that the negative leaders become cutoff from their original positive ends and then develop new positive leader ends that propagate downward to the ground and cause a +CG return stroke that then further extend the negative leaders. Although we have frequently documented the positive leaders growing toward ground after negative leaders propagate in cloud, due to the clouds, we rarely are able to see the positive leader development initially take place from the previously formed negative leader channel. This video contains three cases where we see the negative leader channel from which a new positive leader develops, propagates to ground and causes a +CG return stroke that travels toward the end of the negative leaders, thus furthering their propagation. What is interesting and has yet to be understood is how the positive leader seems to develop from a still luminous negative leader channel segment. The luminosity in the negative leader channel suggests it is still actively carrying current and not completely cutoff. Therefore, we need to determine through further research the mechanism by which a positive leader is able to form and develop from this luminous channel. This behavior was first documented and described in a paper by Saba et al., 2009 using high-speed camera imagery.

Saba, M. M. F., L. Z. S. Campos, E. P. Krider, and O. Pinto Jr. (2009), High-speed video observations of positive ground flashes produced by intracloud lightning, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L12811, doi:10.1029/2009GL038791.

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Flash of the Week (15 Apr 2020), Complex Negative Ground Flash

This complex negative ground flash captured at 7,200 images per second shows negative leaders, negative return strokes with different termination points as well as multiple return strokes in the same channel. It also shows how negative leaders can redevelop from a decayed negative channel branch point and extend the negative leader branch further. The final return stroke is caused by a recoil leader that initiates in the cloud at the positive end of the flash (not visible) with the negative end of the recoil leader traveling along the previous return stroke channel and causing a final negative return stroke.

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How Storm Chasers and Storm Spotters can contribute to #CitizenScience

Citizen Science – the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

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This aspect of scientific research and understanding is rapidly growing primarily due to increased technology advancement, smartphone integration and interest by the general public.  Smart phones and associated apps can now collect valuable data quickly and easily.  I use my smartphone to collect data using the Globe Observer app and have made cloud observations from both polar regions and remote ocean locations.  I also make weather observations using the mPing app.

The contributions can be significant as was evident with the aurora-related phenomenon now known as STEVE.  Aurora chasers have recorded (and named STEVE) for quite awhile, but now their images and documentation combined with correlated scientific observations and analysis has lead to a better understanding of this phenomenon.

As a lightning research scientist, I am frequently approached with interesting lightning observations from the general public.  These usually come in the form of video and digital still images.  When I am able, I try to investigate these observations using what tools and analysis methods I have available, and often involve my willing colleagues that specialize in various aspects of lightning research.  I encourage these observations as they have shown us things we often cannot necessarily capture in a confined research project domain or timeframe.  Many of the images and video come from storm chasers and weather spotters.

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Our biggest challenge when analyzing these data is correlating them to a specific time and place so they can be compared with any other research data that might be available. There are now multiple lightning location networks operational as well as research lightning mapping arrays that continuously record lightning related data.

So what can you as a storm chaser or storm spotter do to contribute to citizen science?  I have a few suggestions that will greatly increase the value and usability of your video and image recordings for scientific analysis.

  1. Time is incredibly important for lightning analysis especially when we are discussing events that typically last less than a second.  Having the correct time set to within a couple of seconds on your cameras is very helpful if not essential for analysis.  I set my camera time every time I format my sd card after downloading any images.  I use the NavClock app but typically the mobile carrier time on your smartphone is accurate to within a few seconds so just using your phone time is good enough.  I also set all my cameras to GMT which is the standard for data collection and analysis.  It makes it easy when you don’t have to convert from the timezone where the image or video was captured.
  2. Location is the next important information needed for analysis.  Some cameras have built in GPS that will record position to metadata (exif) as well as set the camera time accurately.  I wish this was a standard feature on every camera, but unfortunately it is not.  I use the app Geotag Photos Pro to capture and add position information to my images and video.  The direction the camera was pointed is useful as well, but that parameter is more difficult to record as metadata.  I believe Canon has an external GPS encoder that can provide heading information as well.
  3. Thankfully, digital cameras record extensive metadata that describes the parameters set when images are captured.  These data are critical for photogrammetry analysis (e.g., sensor size, focal length, exposure time).  Always keep the exif data and export it with the image when providing it for analysis.  The metadata is embedded in jpg and dng file formats, but will be in a separate xmp sidecar file for native raw camera formats.
  4. The more data the better and the RAW camera format provides the maximum amount of data when capturing digital still images.  I recommend always shooting in the RAW format.

As far as getting your observations to the scientific community, the Science Operations Officer at National Weather Service forecast offices is a great place to start.  Twitter is also good for connecting with researchers.

Again, the importance of Citizen Science cannot be overstated.  It is integral part of scientific exploration and understanding, and I encourage all to participate when and how they can.  Besides its fun too.

 

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