On average 44,000 thunderstorms light up the skies globally every day, pumping out roughly 100 lightning bolts to the earth every second. These spectacular channels of electricity keep the ground even with negative charge and maintain the ionosphere's positive charge. Lightning completes the global electric circuit.
Cloud-to-ground lightning is a hazard to recreational and commercial interests. Although the number of lightning related injuries and fatalities is on the decline, dozens of people are still killed by lightning in the United States each year. The initial and final discharges of a storm have proven to be the most dangerous, and are responsible for a large percentage of lightning related injuries and casualties.
In recent years, there have been leaps and bounds in our understanding of lightning, but for each new discovery there are 10 remaining mysteries. Ben Franklin's kite experiment was the starting point 250 years ago, and we still don't know precisely how lightning works. For all we know, lightning may as well be tossed down at us from Zeus.
Atmospheric scientists do have a basic understanding of the mechanisms that trigger lightning. Positive charges build up near the top of the thundercloud, as negative charges build at the bottom of the cloud. Electrical attraction between the opposite charges eventually grow strong enough to overcome the air's natural resistance to electrical flow.
Negative charges then stream down from the bottom of the cloud into the sky below and move quickly toward the ground, forming a conductive path called a "stepped leader." The stepped leader connects to "streamers" of positive charges surging up from the ground, completing an electrical circuit. This enables negative charges to flow from the cloud to the ground along the current they have formed. This enormous discharge of electricity is what we see as lightning.
How all this happens, remains a mystery. The consensus among scientists, is that charge separation is mainly achieved by a process called non-inductive charging mechanism. There is a mix of ice and water up around 15,000 feet or so. Somehow they interact with each other in updrafts filled with turbulent energy. The water and ice separate into oppositely charged particles. The lighter particles acquire positive charge and zip to the top of the cloud, while the heavier ones are negative and fall down towards the base of the cloud..
Another big unknown is the "lightning initiation problem". The electric fields inside lightning producing storms consistently yield peak values that are much too weak to break down air's natural insulation properties. So how does it all break down?
How lightning can propagate for miles through the air is also a mystery. It's amazing that for a brief instant, air is turned from an insulator, into a conductor.
Those are some of the questions we will be trying to help determine an answer for with our lightning rockets in 2015. Our probe for the 2015 storm season, Franklinstein, will be equipped with an on board air ion counter, to measure the strength of the positively charged ions near the surface. This device will be monitored via first person view camera system. Once the values are maximized, the rocket initiation sequence will begin.
The first rocket will fire into the air, attached to the probe by a wire, It will become the path of least resistance, making it a prime target for lightning to travel through. Moments after the first rocket is fired, a second detached rocket will fire, containing instruments to measure the electrical fields near the clouds. Back at the surface, our probe will measure the air temperature, dew point, wind speed, and decibel level from the associated thunder. It will also be equipped with high speed video cameras, as well as a DSLR that will shoot continuously, so we can hopefully capture any streamers that may occur.
With the data gathered during our experiments, we hope to contribute to a greater understanding of what causes lightning to form, the process it goes through to overcome air's natural insulating properties, and exactly what is occurring at the surface before, during, and after a lightning strike.
In the fall of 2013, I was approached by Oxford Scientific Films, with an extraordinary opportunity to study lightning. In March of 2014, I traveled to Florida to meet with Richard Hammond and a production crew to record for an upcoming series Wild Weather with Richard Hammond. Afterwards, it was my job to take a probe, which we came to call the Franklin Box, and place it in the path of a thunderstorm. The box fired rockets, attached to the probe via copper wire, 1000 feet into the air in an attempt to initiate lightning.
We spent 3 days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida going over how to use the probe and filming for the series. The idea behind it was fairly simple, the rocket would fired under a thunderstorm and initiate lightning, which would travel down the attached wire, and back to the probe. The probe was 36" x 36", made of aluminum, equipped with two electrodes, and four glass panels. The idea was that the lightning would arc through the gap in the probe's electrodes, and the shock wave from the air exploding would blow out the glass panels, proving that thunder was dangerous as well as the lightning.
We tested it in Florida, and it worked...well kind of. We hooked up a capacitor to the electrodes and pumped 10,000 volts of electricity through them. It arced through the gap in the electrodes, made a loud snap, and cracked the glass. I was convinced a lightning bolt would effectively blow the glass out.
We drove the probe back to Texas from Florida, and began preparations for this endeavor. A couple weeks later we had our first chance to deploy the probe. The first deployment was an absolute disaster. It became apparent just how difficult it was to assemble something, not only in front of a storm, but where I thought the lightning core would be when it passed over. After crisscrossing back roads in Central Texas, we began deployment in Holland, Texas. We barely got the Franklin Box setup in time, and cracked one of the glass panels in the process. Then the rocket ignition system failed, so we launched a weather balloon attached to the wire instead. The wind snapped the wire as soon as all the slack was let out. The trailer the probe sat on was blown off its block. It was time to go back to the drawing board.
We got the ignition system fixed (or so we thought) and embarked on a 4 day research trip at the beginning of April. We attempted to deploy on April 1st in North Texas, but got out of position before storm initiation and spent the entire day trying to correct that mistake, which we never did accomplish. The next day we traveled to south Kansas, but the storms didn't cooperate, with lightning far too infrequent to attempt a deployment. On April 3rd, we chased in western Missouri, but our storm exhibited a wall cloud, making deployment far too dangerous.
We tried to deploy again on May 7th. We had a chance in Henrietta, Texas on a gorgeous supercell, but the road network made deployment impossible, with no decent roads in the direct path of the storm. We deployed on a second storm that evening in Waurika, Oklahoma after a tornado warning on the cell was allowed to expire, but the storm fell apart as it approached the Franklin Box. We finally got probe setup on May 8th in front of a storm back in Central Texas. It was our first successful setup, but the lightning was confined to the core, and too infrequent to justify a rocket launch.
Our next attempted deployment was on June 12th in Central Texas, but the rocket ignition system malfunctioned again as we were testing in the field, waiting on storm initiation. It didn't really matter, the storm produced an EF-2 tornado which made it far too dangerous to consider deployment. We worked on the ignition system the next day and finally got it working. The only issue was it would be on a one minute timer, which meant I would be taking a leap of faith on my launches.
I decided to take a solo trip to Northern Kansas for a severe weather setup on June 14th. I setup the probe in front of a supercell near Smith Center, Kansas. The lightning activity was extremely frequent. As the storm approached from the west, it took a slight turn to the north. That small change of direction caused me to rush the initiation sequence. One minute later, I had finally fired off my first rocket in the field. I hopefully watched it zoom into the sky, but no lightning hit the rocket. I was okay with that, it was the first time the Franklin Box had been setup in the path of a storm and a rocket successfully fired from it.
After taking a little time off, and working out some kinks with the setup. I was ready to make one last run of the season. On August 7th, we took a trip to the Texas Panhandle, and got the Franklin Box setup in the path of an elevated supercell, which was a lightning producing juggernaut. We got the probe setup in record time, just under 13 minutes.
This was our best chance yet to get a strike on the probe. The lightning was all around us, and crackling above, as anvil crawlers spread out overhead. Unfortunately, approximately one second before launch, a close cloud to ground channel drained the negative charge from the cloud and eliminated any chance of the probe receiving a direct hit.
We decided to give it one last try, on August 10th, we targeted North Texas for thunderstorms, and by early afternoon, clusters of them had formed across the region. BBC sent out a film crew to follow us around for the last day. We setup on a small storm near Snyder, Texas, but never launched, as it fizzled out before reaching the probe. There was no way we weren't launching on the last day of the project. We disassembled the probe and hurried south towards Throckmorton, Texas for a last ditch effort to get the Franklin Box struck. We stopped at the northern edge of the cluster of storms, and considered launching there, but the road network was unfavorable and the lightning was way too close and frequent for a safe deployment. We agreed to punch through the core and try to deploy on the south side of the storms.
Our decision was rewarded with a fantastically colored, sunset lit thunderstorm. The lightning was all around us, north, south, east, west, and above, but we were able to get the probe assembled and readied for launch in about 10 minutes. It was apparent the time to launch was upon us. We initiated the launch sequence and took shelter in our vehicle. The rocket launched as lightning was occurring, but another miss. The rocket sailed off into the sunset, and with it our hopes for initiating lightning in 2014. Another massive effort, that came up totally empty handed.
...Until I got home and reviewed the footage.
46 seconds prior to the rocket launch, the top electrode moved as the environment around the Franklin Box is highly charged. We were in the vehicle at the time (you can hear it speeding away in the video) and getting some distance between ourselves and the probe. But I'm certain that had we been standing out there, we would have experienced our hair standing on end. Furthermore, had we been able to read the measurement of ions in the air at that moment, we would have obtained some great data, and possibly been able to initiate a strike had we fired the rocket then.
In the end, our portion of the show was cut from the broadcast. Word from the producers was that the higher ups at BBC thought it was a little too scientific for their targeted audience. That was kind of a let down, but I still had an absolute blast leading this project over the course of the year. I learned a ton, not only about lightning, but also rocketry, electricity, and filming in the process. I'd agree to it again quicker than a flash of lightning.
We will be premiering our clips from the show here at JasonRWeingart.com in the coming days, so stay tuned.
Big Thanks for all the help to:
Savannah Williams, Aaron Williams Jr., Dan Whittaker, Hazel Nelson, Rhonda Weingart, Alex Bartholomew, and Jay (whose last name I never got).
*All content in this section is copyrighted by Oxford Scientific Films. Any reproduction without the expressed, written consent of Oxford Sceintific Films and Jason Weingart is strictly prohibited.*