Lightning catchers

Collaboration means listening to the needs of your partners. So when emergency managers across North Carolina said they needed a better way to track lightning strikes, their partners at RENCI set out to apply technology and ingenuity to the problem.

The results are now in: a series of simple lightning sensors, customized by RENCI software engineers, that when completed will comprise a lightning detection network capable of locating and tracking dangerous lightning and lightning ground strikes in real time. So far, two of the lightning sensors are in place in central North Carolina at the Orange and Montgomery county emergency management offices. Another four will be installed—two in western North Carolina and two in the east.

“One thing we learned when we introduced our NC-FIRST weather data portal was that emergency managers wanted information on lightning—how concentrated the strikes are and, as accurately as possible, where they are. And they wanted this data in real time.” said Jessica Proud, a senior researcher and meteorologist with RENCI’s disaster research program.

When severe storms head across the state, an accurate picture of lightning strikes and potential strikes can be crucial to emergency managers. The information can help them determine whether people at large outdoor events—county fairs, sporting events and outdoor concerts, for example—are in danger and need to be evacuated. Archiving lightning data for further study helps in future decision making, such as figuring out the safest place to install a communications tower.
The data collected by the RENCI network will be archived by the State Climate Office of North Carolina at North Carolina State University and will be made available to emergency managers in real time across the state through RENCI’s NC-FIRST weather data portal, which pulls together a wide range of weather data into an easy-to-use format for emergency managers and first responders.

In addition, RENCI software developers are customizing the lightning sensors so that the data from each one can be integrated to create an accurate, real-time big picture of lightning strikes across the state. Other customization will be the ability to overlay radar imagery in order to better understand the dynamics of a thunderstorm in as it happens.
“Until this project, the county emergency managers really didn’t have a practical way to get this kind of data,” said Proud. “It’s a simple solution that could make a big difference.”

RENCI…Catalyst for Innovation
The Renaissance Computing Institute brings together teams of talented researchers, engineers, technologists and leaders in government, business, the arts and humanities to attack major research questions and community issues in ways that accelerate discovery and drive innovation. RENCI has nationally significant expertise and capabilities in high performance computing, visualization, collaborative tools, networking, device prototyping, and data systems as well as engagement sites across the state. Founded in 2004 as a major collaborative venture of Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the state of North Carolina, RENCI is a statewide virtual organization.  For more, see