Satellites can be used for a number of less obvious applications. One of these is the monitoring of lightning strikes, which is vital for a number of reasons. According to NASA’s lightning research team, there are about 1.4 billion lightning flashes around the world each year, costing huge sums of money in airline re-routing, infrastructure damage, power failures and lost lives, and the monitoring of lightning strikes is important for mitigation of risk.
Researchers are hoping that future geostationary sensors (monitoring a constant area of the Earth’s surface) will deliver day and night lightning information to forecasters within 30 seconds of occurrence — providing storm “nowcasting” as well as for issuing severe storm warnings.
The amount of lightning activity globally is hugely variable. Lightning is the result of convection (rising) of warm, moist air. Local factors such as moist air being brought of a relatively warm ocean or lake and being forced to rise by topography can create local “pockets” of unusually frequent thunderstorm activity.
According to recent research presented at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco reported by Rachel Albrecht of the University of Sao Paulo, the point on the Earth’s surface that gets the most lightning lies right where Lake Maracaibo meets the Catatumbo River – not a good place to stand around for a long time. The lake as a whole experiences lightning on 297 days of the year on average with 28 strikes every minute when storms are taking place. Of course, this phenomenon has been known about for hundreds of years.
The lightning is so reliable in this area that it has been used as a navigation aid and has even thwarted past military campaigns (hoping to use cover of darkness). For more up to date information on lightning from satellites, please visit the following link: Lightning Maps.