Archive for category Upward Lightning

Upward Lightning Lights Up The Bay Area, 4/12/12

On the night of 12 Apr 2012, the Bay Area of California experienced a storm that literally lit up the skies with upward lightning.  Some iconic photographs and video were taken during this event which provided evidence that numerous tall objects developed upward leaders in response to nearby flashes.  The foremost images that illustrated what happened that night were taken by Phil McGrew.  He had his Canon 5D Mark III camera running continuously using 20 sec exposures.  During two of these exposures, his camera captured upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge and additional structures on the east side of the Bay.  For each of the two photographs that he posted, it is likely that all the upward leaders developed during the same flash that probably lasted less than one second.  He was located in a tall building on the east side of San Francisco downtown looking east along the Bay Bridge.

Below are embedding links as provided by Phil’s Flickr page where he has posted two images.  Click on the images to go to his Flickr page.  The exif data on his Flickr page indicates that the first of the two images was taken at 8:38:29 pm PDT using ISO 100, f/10, 20 sec exposure and a 28 mm lens.  In this image there appears to be 5 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 2 upward leaders from two separate structures on the east side of the bay (likely in the Oakland area).

The (Other) Bay Bridge Lightning Strike.

Again based on the exif data, the second image that Phil captured was at 8:42:41 pm PDT (4 min and 12 sec later) and used the same camera settings.  This image (which has rightfully received international acclaim) appears to show 6 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 4 additional leaders beyond the Bay Bridge likely from structures on the east side of the bay.

Bay Bridge Lightning Strike!

Phil’s photographs indicate they were separated by 4 min and 12 sec.  Not know the time accuracy of Phil’s camera, we compared the indicated times and time difference between the two images with National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN)  data.  Based on previous research findings, we suspected that these upward leaders were triggered by positive ground flashes (+CG) within 50 km of the Bay Bridge.  Two very large estimated peak current +CG strokes were recorded at 3:39:59.425  and 3:44:12.332 pm PDT.  They had estimated peak currents of +129.8 kA and +270.7 kA respectively and were separated by 4 min and 12.907 sec.  There was a +27.8 kA stroke at 03:39:22.773 (37 min earlier of the first big +CG) and 2 -CG strokes at 03:40:32.843 and 03:42:21.957 fell within the time spaning the two large +CGs.

Below are GIS plots of the NLDN indicated return strokes and cloud events.  The first figure shows the event location, event type by symbol (see legend) and estimated peak current based on relative symbol size.  Notice the size of the +CG return stroke symbols relative to the other events.

Plot of NLDN recorded events. Size is relative to estimated peak current.

Plot of NLDN recorded events. Size is relative to estimated peak current.

The next figure shows the NLDN event locations and their times.

NLDN event locations and times.

NLDN event locations and times.

The last figure shows the NLDN events and a label of the estimated peak current.

NLDN event locations and estimated peak current labeled.

NLDN event locations and estimated peak current labeled.

We suspect that the upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge were positive polarity and developed following the large estimated peak current positive cloud-to-ground return strokes that occurred inside the Bay.  These are examples of lightning triggered upward lightning in which the field change resulting from a preceding flash causes the development of upward leaders from nearby tall objects.

There were a number of other images from other people that showed upward leaders from tall objects during this same night and the other locations included the Golden Gate Bridge and tall buildings in Oakland.  We suspect that these upward leaders also developed during the same triggering flashes that caused the upward leaders to develop from the Bay Bridge.

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Characteristics of Upward Positive Leaders: Initial Development

Upward positive leaders (UPLs) that develop from the towers in Rapid City, SD usually exhibit low luminosity during their initial development.  For UPLs that do not initially branch, they tend to exhibit pulsing/stepping within the first 500 m of their growth.  The luminosity pulses originate at or near the tip of the leader with a luminosity front that travels down the leader toward the tower tip.  As the leader grows in length and brightens, the pulse frequency decreases and becomes more irregular.  The leader also then exhibit a more continuous development unlikely negative leaders which continue to clearly step during their propagation.  These observations are similar to those reported by Idone, 1992 and most recently by Biagi et al., 2011.  Below is high-speed video of an UPL’s initial development filmed at 54,000 images per second.

Below is another high-speed video of an UPL filmed at 100,000 ips.  There are two bright luminosity pulses that travel from the tip of the leader down to the tower tip during its development.

UPLs that branch shortly after initiation tend to branch widely and remain weakly luminous.  They do not exhibit pulsing/stepping like the bright non-branched leaders, however, they are very difficult to see at the higher recording speeds due to their weak luminosity.

Idone, V. P., 1992: The luminous development of Florida triggered lightning. Res. Lett. Atmos. Electr., 122, 23–28.

Biagi, C. J., M. A. Uman, J. D. Hill, and D. M. Jordan, 2011: Observations of the initial, upward-propagating, positive leader steps in a rocket-and-wire triggered lightning discharge. Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L24809, doi:10.1029/2011GL049944.


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Recoil Leaders in Lichtenberg Figure Formation??

Below is a video on the creation of Lichtenberg figures.  Interesting is the subsequent bright short discharges that continue to take place after the initial discharge.  These seem similar in appearance to recoil leaders, which form on positive leaders branches that become cutoff from a main channel.  Compare the two videos below.

YouTube video of Lichtenberg creation.

Upward lightning (upward positive leaders) from a tower filmed at 9,000 images per second.

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Positive leader development on decayed/cutoff negative leaders

In a previous post I discussed the observation that positive leaders are often visible below cloud base in association with so called “Spider Lightning.”  I suspect that these positive leaders form when horizontally extensive negative leader development that propagates just above cloud base decays or becomes cutoff from their initial bipolar development or from the ground termination point in the case of the extensive horizontal negative leader development that frequently follows a +CG return stroke.  These positive leaders, which are below cloud base, tend to lag behind or trail the negative leader propagation which is just above cloud base.  On some occasions a positive leader associated with this secondary positive leader development will connect with ground resulting in a +CG return stroke.  Since the positive leader initiated on part of the original negative leader network that formed, the subsequent return stroke will traverse this previously formed network and cause further extension of the negative leaders (through new negative breakdown in virgin air) once it reaches the outer extents of the negative leader development that formed prior to the return stroke.  This can result in a continuation of horizontally extensive negative leader development that travels 10s of kilometers.  If another cycle of negative leader cutoff followed by positive leader formation and subsequent +CG return stroke occurs, this horizontal extension of negative leaders can continue for very large distances exceeding 100 km.  The resulting field change (or charge moment change) associated with these horizontally extensive flashes can initiate transient luminous events (TLEs) and/or upward positive leaders from tall towers.

On 8/30/11 UT, I was able to record this apparent process with a high-speed camera operating at 10,000 ips.  The flash originated to the northeast of my location and a +54.7 kA estimated peak current, +CG return stroke occurred 28 km away at 04:29:11.708 UT based on the NLDN.  A standard-speed video camera recorded this correlated return stroke and a sharp brightness increase just outside of the high-speed camera’s field of view also correlated with the return stroke.  Horizontal negative leader development following the return stroke propagated just above cloud base towards my location (about 1 km south of Tower 6, see UPLIGHTS post).  A few of the leaders were visible just below clouds base and these had the appearance and propagation characteristics of negative leaders.  Additionally, electric field sensing equipment located about 5 km to my west recorded a negative field change (atmospheric electricity sign convention) that correlated with the approach of negative leaders.  As this development passed over the towers (and overhead the camera) short duration attempted upward leaders were visible from multiple towers.  Eventually, weak upward leaders from three towers initiated in close succession (within 7 ms).  Two of these leaders exhibited weak recoil leader activity suggesting they were positive polarity.  A wide field of view standard-speed camera located 5 km further west than the high-speed camera captured more of the visible negative leaders that emerged just below cloud base as they passed over the towers and the high-speed camera. (See the standard-speed video below).

After the upward leaders decayed and the brightness associated with the horizontal negative leader development decreased, positive leaders were seen to develop downward from multiple locations along the path the negative leaders passed previously.  All of the weakly luminous positive leaders had branches that exhibited recoil leader activity.  One of the positive leaders connected with the ground at 11.938 UT (in the high-speed camera’s field of view) and the NLDN recorded a corresponding +12.8 kA estimated peak current cloud flash, “+IC” even though there was a clear connection with the ground.  The return stroke resulted in a reillumination of the western portion of the original negative leader network path that formed prior to the return stroke, and in fact a negative leader was clearly visible following the return stroke in the same area traversed previously by the horizontal negative leader development.  One leader appeared to be new negative leader breakdown in virgin air likely forming a new channel near the previously formed channels.  In addition, negative leaders were again visible just below cloud base, but further west than before as seen in the standard-speed video.

As observed frequently with +CG flashes, recoil leaders continued to be active on branches of the downward positive leaders even after the return stroke suggesting these branches were cutoff from the main downward propagating positive leader at the time of the return stroke.  These branches did not, therefore, participate in the return stroke (i.e., the return stroke did not travel into these branches during its upward travel from the ground connection point).

The second return stroke did not initiate any upward leaders from the other towers nor did it reinitiate upward leaders from those towers that previously developed upward leaders.

Below is the high-speed camera recording from this flash.

Ron Thomas at New Mexico Tech, gave me an LMA animation showing extensive horizontal negative leader development with 4 sequential +CG return strokes that trailed behind the VHF sources (leading edge of the negative leader development).  I suspect that this flash was similar to the one presented here in that positive leaders formed on cutoff ends of the negative leader development and connected with the ground forming +CGs in trail of the preceding negative leaders.

Furthermore, Carey [2005] discussed an LDAR II’s depiction of a horizontally extensive flash in which the “long-lived, spatially extensive, and horizontally stratified lightning channels are clearly reminiscent of the spider lightning activity observed by Mazur et al., [1998] in stratiform precipitation as part of the intracloud component of a positive CG lightning flash.”  He described that the LDAR II recorded VHF sources for one segment as becoming noisy and spatially incoherent in the area of the previously identified channel segment (i.e., there were previously coherent VHF sources that first traveled along the segment).  This was followed by a +CG return stroke after which the sources become more spatially coherent and spatially extensive.  I believe his description illustrates the initial horizontal negative leader development (first coherent sources that form the channel segment), the subsequent recoil leader activity associated with the positive leaders that form on the cutoff negative leaders (noisy and spatially incoherent sources generated by the spatially separated and non-coherent initiation and propagation of the negative polarity end of recoil leaders that form on cutoff positive leader branches), the +CG as one of the positive leaders connects with ground, and the expansion of new negative leader development following the +CG return stroke.

Carey, L. D., M. J. Murphy, T. L. McCormick, and N. W. S. Demetriades (2005), Lightning location relative to storm structure in a leading-line, trailing-stratiform mesoscale convective system, J. Geophys. Res., 110, D03105, doi: 10.1029/2003JD004371.

Mazur, V., X. Shao, and P. R. Krehbiel (1998), ‘‘Spider’’ lightning in intracloud and positive cloud-to-ground, J. Geophys. Res., 103(D16), 19,811 –19,822.

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CN Tower Experiences The Perfect Storm

On the night of 8/24/11, a leading-line/trailing stratiform mesoscale convective system developed and moved over Toronto, Canada.  The heart of the trailing stratiform region passed directly over the 553 m tall CN Tower and the people of Toronto were treated to an incredible light show as the tower unleashed at least 34 upward flashes over the span of an hour.  Wilke and Elizabeth See-Tho graciously provided me some video of the event and my analysis suggests that all of the upward flashes were triggered by preceding flash activity (lightning-triggered lightning) similar to what I observe in Rapid City, South Dakota.  For each case there was clearly in-cloud flash activity that preceded the upward leader initiation.  In addition, recoil leaders were visible in a large majority of the upward leaders suggesting they were positive polarity.

Below is a composite image where I stacked selected images from the See-Tho’s video.  As you can see, the CN Tower was literally ablaze with lightning leaders over the span of the storm.

Below is the edited video provided by the See-Tho’s.  This version plays in real time showing all 34 upward flashes and one spider lightning flash.

Below is the the same video sped up.

Below is video of each flash played at normal speed and in slow motion (total runtime 34 min).

Although I have not obtained nor analyzed lightning data for this storm, I suspect that a majority of the upward flashes were triggered by a preceding +CG flash within 50 km of the tower.  Horizontally extensive positive charge regions that form in the trailing stratiform regions of MCSs serve as potential wells for negative leaders that can travel upwards of 100 km.  This horizontally extensive negative leader development can take place during an intracloud flash and/or following a +CG return stroke.  The negative field change (atmospheric electricity sign convention) experienced at a tall tower by the approach of negative leaders or nearby +CG return stroke can initiate upward propagating positive leaders.  The conditions apparently were ideal for this triggering process and weather radar shows this was likely the case.

Below is a radar loop (base reflectivity, 0.5 degree tilt) of the storm development and passage over the CN Tower spanning from 00:02 – 03:41 UT, 8/25/11.  The See-Tho’s stated that the first upward flash was shortly after 02:00 UT.  This places the leading line convective region just east of the CN Tower with the tower in an area of decrease reflectivity between 30-40 dBz.  The tower would stay under this level of reflectivity (i.e., the trailing stratiform precipitation area) until 03:41 UT.  The last upward flash the See-Tho’s recorded was at approximately 03:06, but they thought there were a few more upward flashes that followed after they stopped filming.

This truly was a perfect storm to produce upward lightning flashes.  I suspect that many transient luminous events (TLEs) in the form of halos and/or sprites may have also been produced by the very same triggering flashes responsible for initiating the upward leaders.  The CN Tower is instrumented to measure current through the tower and there is an array of optical sensors including a high-speed camera within 3 km of the tower.  Hopefully, all the instrumentation was operational and an outstanding data set was captured.

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Upward Lightning Triggering Study (UPLIGHTS)

The Upward Lightning Triggering Study (UPLIGHTS) is a three year National Science Foundation funded research campaign seeking to better understand how upward lightning from tall objects is triggered by nearby flash activity.  Using coordinated optical and electromagnetic sensors, researchers from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and INPE Brazil will observe upward lightning from 10 tall towers in Rapid City, South Dakota, USA during the 2012-2014 summer thunderstorm seasons.

Below are map images showing the location of the research project.



Here is a view of 6 of the 10 towers from a primary observation location.  View is looking northeast from west Rapid City.


The objectives of this campaign are to identify the:

1)     Types of flashes (intracloud or cloud-to-ground) and their properties (polarity, current, electrical potential, distance from tall objects and propagation speed) that affect or are critical for the initiation of upward leaders from tall towers.

2)     Types of storms (e.g., mesoscale convective systems, supercell, multicell), region of storm (e.g., anvil region, convective core, trailing stratiform precipitation area), and storm development stage (e.g., mature, dissipating) during which upward lightning occurs.

3)     Conditions for triggering upward leaders on multiple tall objects during the same flash: all upward leaders initiated by one influencing component of a triggering flash or as a result of interaction between individual upward leaders in a sequential manner.

The equipment that will be used includes:

1)     Opticial sensing: multiple high-speed cameras capable for recording rates over 100,000 images per second, standard- and high-definition video cameras, and digitial still image cameras.

2)     Electromagnetic sensing: two interferometers that can 3-dimensionally locate radiated sources from lightning leader propagation, electric field meters, fast and slow field change sensors, and National Lightning Detection Network data. Interferometers will be loaned from Vaisala, Inc.

3)     Meterological: radara data from the KUDX WSR-88D weather radar located near New Underwood, South Dakota, thermodynamic sounding data obtained from and by the Rapid City NWSFO, and meteorogical surface data observed at the Rapid City NWSFO and Rapid City Regional Airport.

This research is made possible be a grant from the National Science Foundation.  We wish to acknowledge and thank NSF and Dr. Brad Smull.

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