NASA Lightning Research Happens in a Flash
Lightning's connection to hurricane intensification has eluded researchers for decades, and for a riveting 40 days this summer, NASA lightning researchers will peer inside storms in a way they never have before. Earth scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will soon fly the Lightning Instrument Package, or LIP, a flight instrument designed to track and document lightning as hurricanes develop and intensify. In August and September, LIP will fly on a remotely piloted Global Hawk airplane over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 60,000 feet. LIP will be part of a NASA hurricane study called Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes, or GRIP for short.

The study involves three storm chaser planes mounted with 15 instruments. LIP and the other instruments will work together to create the most complete view of hurricanes to date. "We're now putting LIP on an aircraft that can stay in the air for 30 hours," said Richard Blakeslee LIP principal investigator and Earth scientist at the the Marshall Center. "That’s unprecedented. We typically fly on airplanes that fly over a storm for a period of 10-15 minutes. But this plane can stay with a storm for hours." "We'll be able to see a storm in a way we’ve never seen it before," he added. "We'll see how the storm develops over the long term, and how lightning varies with all the other things going on inside a hurricane.

It's the difference between a single photograph and a full-length movie. That’s quite a paradigm shift." While scientists know an increase in lightning means the storm is changing, it remains a mystery as to whether that increase signifies strengthening or weakening. Though scientists have quite a few ideas, they lack the data to firmly establish a concrete relationship. Researchers hope LIP's upcoming flights will change that. If scientists can figure out the ties between lightning and hurricane severity, meteorologists may be able to greatly improve their short-term forecasts. Researchers have connected lightning to everything from strong winds to flooding to tornadoes, and a few extra minutes of warning time can save lives each year.

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