A system being developed by University of Alabama researchers could help forecast lightning, potentially saving lives and preventing horrific burn injuries. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records, lightning killed on average 53 people a year in the United States between 1982 and 2011.

The system’s designers hope to forecast lightning storms 30 to 45 minutes before the first bolt strikes. Currently, meteorologists can give only a 10- to 15-minute warning.

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“A lot of the basic research in lightning prediction has been done, but weather service forecasters haven’t been getting the benefit from that work,” said John Mecikalski, project co-director and associate professor in University of  Alabama-Huntsville’s Atmospheric Science Department. ”One of our major goals is to increase the lead time that forecasters have for predicting which clouds are most likely to produce lightning and when lightning will start.”

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The new system will combine several existing tools. Data from National Aeronautic and Space Administration satellites will be combined with radar observations. The satellite and radar data will then be analyzed by numerical models to monitor clouds as they swell into lightning-hurling thunderstorms.

Photo: Lightning strikes over Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif. Credit: U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons