"Maps" Help Reveal How Lightning Strikes

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"The more you know, the more loose ends you find," says Moore, an emeritus professor of atmospheric physics at New Mexico Tech. Within the last year, the team found that the leader coming down from a thundercloud radiates x-rays.

Lightning Mapping

One piece of knowledge that still eludes scientists is one of the most basic: how storm clouds become electrically charged in the first place.

Seeking the answer, Rison climbs high into the Magdalena Mountains, where New Mexico Tech maintains one of the world's premier lightning research facilities, Langmuir Lab. At 11,000 feet, it's right where the action is.

"We can put our instruments right on top of the mountain, knowing that the storm should be formed there, so we can study a thunderstorm from its birth, through its mature stages, to its death," says Rison.

What Rison is doing is called lightning "mapping" and it is done by strategically placing an array of detectors on the mountain around Langmuir.

The detectors that make up the mapping array pick up radio impulses given off by lightning. Those impulses are picked up by an antenna, and travel through a cable to a recorder.

Using computer imaging, Rison and his colleagues at Langmuir can translate the array data into moving images that show the anatomy of a strike.

Bolt from the Blue

The mapping may help to explain some of lightning's most bizarre behavior. Tracking one bolt on the monitor, it seems to be a typical cloud-to-cloud discharge. But then, something startling happens: It abruptly changes direction and arcs upward and outward, striking the ground miles from where it began. Lightning researchers call this a "bolt from the blue," which, scientists are discovering, are not all that rare.

It seems possible that just such a bolt "from the blue" struck Patricia Stribling.

"It wasn't a stormy day," says Stribling, "it was in May, drizzly, overcast—it wasn't a day that you'd think there'd be lightning."

Stribling's only visible injury was a mild burn on the top of her head. And though she now has an acute sensitivity to light that she can't explain, she's lucky to be alive.

"You really do need to be careful when there's a thunderstorm in the area, even five or ten miles away—the lightning can travel that far from the center of a storm and come to ground where you may be," says Rison.

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