BOSTON (CBS) — Pop up thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the summer in New England. Lots of folks pay attention to the severe thunderstorm warnings, which include the hazards of large hail, wind, and occasionally tornadoes. But a less predictable, and more dangerous hazard lurks just seconds away.
“There was lightning off in the distance over the ocean, and the starter said we’ll get this in before it gets here. And obviously, we didn’t. The horn went off and about 10, 15 seconds later I took a bolt to the head,” says Michael Utley, lightning strike survivor, StruckByLightning.org.
Utley was in a charity golf tournament on Cape Cod. Now, back to playing golf, he has permanent consequences eighteen years later. He has since made it a mission to spread awareness through the “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors” campaign.
“In the last 15 years, we have seen a dramatic decrease in injuries and deaths,” says Utley. This is a result of educating kids at a very young age.
A private company called Vaisala has a lightning detection network with the ability to notify the user 15 seconds after a lightning strike hits the ground.
“Vaisala has built a global network and we cover lightning around the world, with not as tightly accurate as the US but very, very good. We’re averaging 2 million strokes per day, 2 billion strokes a year,” says Ron Holle, Meteorologist with Vaisala in Tucson, AZ.
According to Holle, approximately 80-85 percent of the lightning in Massachusetts occurs in June, July, and August between the hours of 2 and 8 p.m. Vaisala research drilled down further and ranked the Massachusetts counties by lightning strike. Interestingly, Suffolk County and Hampden County come out on top. Below is a map with the rounded data for the top 10 counties in MA. The numbers are the average flashes per square mile per year (9 years of data from 2008 – 2017).
Holle says take in this information cautiously. There are so few lightning strikes in the state anyway, that the data and rankings are too close together to come to an accurate conclusion about why those counties are in the top spots.
The National Weather Service and NASA are working on a possible lightning warning system. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the new GOES satellite shows cloud to ground and intracloud flashes. The rate and density are measured. From that, the National Weather Service could issue probability-based warnings. This could help us detect the “bolt from the blue” or a rapidly intensifying storm. This is something WBZ Meteorologist Pamela Gardner helped research in 2017, and in May of 2018 at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
The technology is exploding and it won’t be long before we are able to anticipate where lightning may strike and issue warnings. The biggest hurdle though will be to get people to take action.
“You can put it in. You can make it go off. But you can’t get people to pay attention because they say it’s over there, it’s not going to get me. Who you kidding? Lightning? They don’t take it seriously,” says Utley. “Look at me. I’m not what you want to be. It is that big a deal. It only takes a second and your golf game is not that important.”