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Coming soon: Tech to predict lightning strikes up to three hours in advance

A project to instal a lightning sensor on a geostationary satellite can help India avoid thousands of deaths due to thunderstorms

A lightning strike and branch lightning over the Victoria Memorial. Photo: Abhishek Saigal
A lightning strike and branch lightning over the Victoria Memorial. Photo: Abhishek Saigal

It often goes unacknowledged but lightning strikes kill more people than any other extreme weather event in India. Between 2,000-2,500 people die every year, most of them in rural areas. With climate change prompting unseasonal thunderstorms, the death toll is only expected to rise in the future.

At a webinar on 13 July, Dr M Rajeevan, secretary at Ministry of Earth Sciences, acknowledged the dangers posed by lightning strikes. To address this issue, he said the government was in talks with Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) to install a lightning detector on an upcoming geo-satellite. “If all goes well, we will have a geo satellite in space with a lightning detector within a year," said Dr Rajeevan.

Dr Sunil Pawar is a senior scientist at Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, and has been researching lightning and thunderstorms for over two decades. Over a phone interview, he told Mint about India’s existing technological infrastructure, how a satellite-mounted lightning sensor works, and how it will dramatically enhance the quality of India’s disaster response.

Edited excerpts:

What kind of technology do we have in predicting thunderstorms and lightning strikes?

Lightning strikes is a complex phenomena. In the last 3-4 years, we’ve identified lightning prone regions. But the accuracy of the existing metrological models isn’t too high. We can roughly say that a Pune district can have a thunderstorm but can’t say exactly which taluka or village will be affected.

In the recent years, we’ve started creating a lightning detection network. This includes both ground based and satellite based systems. Most countries are using ground-based systems. It detects which region the thunderstorm will start in, which direction it is headed and the speed at which it is moving. Then they start generating the warning. In India, we can get a warning with a 1 hour notice with more accurate predictions with 30-40 minutes to go.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences has announced plans to install a lightning sensor on a geostationary satellite in collaboration with ISRO. How will that help our ability to predict lightning strikes?

The limitation of ground-based satellite is, it can’t get data from remote areas or in oceans. And most thunderstorms start from oceans and then go on to the land. A geostationary satellite can give us continuous data as observed from above the earth. It is useful to map the full region – even the Himalayan and the oceanic regions. But this satellite depends on light-imagery detection i.e. if lightning strikes and the light is visible, the satellite will pick it up. But sometimes, it might not be able to detect because of thick clouds.

Are the two systems then meant to complement each other?

Yes. For research purposes, ground is more accurate and informative. And using satellite-based warning, you can also get information for remote regions.

How will this benefit India’s disaster response in practical terms?

Using these systems, we can develop good warning systems. We’re trying to develop SMS alerts, especially for those living in remote areas. Satellite and lightning data will be useful for models also. It will help improve the accuracy of warnings and our forecast.

Has India been slow in using technology and other means to predict and coordinate the response?

Yes. We started recognizing lightning as a major natural disaster only 20 years ago. But now, almost all state governments have started educational and awareness programmes. I have been called by many state governments to understand what they can and not do. It’ll improve a lot more in the next 1-2 years.

Is the kind of infrastructure we have in the country today enough?

The setting up of the lightning detection system is almost complete. We have installed 83 ground-based systems over the entire country. Now with the satellite-based system, we’re expecting to detect the data even better. At the moment, we can issue accurate predictions between 40 minutes to 1 hour. If we combined [satellite-based systems] with the existing technology, we can get predictions up to 3 hours earlier. We can fine-tune to smaller regions as well, find out which villages will be affected in up to a 10*10 km region.

What more can be done?

The government and scientists should work together. It has been a challenge. Like other countries, we should have a dedicated 24-hour weather channel. The main difficulty we’re facing is regarding the best way to reach farmers. We’ve started a mobile app called ‘Damini’ to issue weather related warnings but it is largely underused. Damini gives SMS updates but that goes to users of Android phones. A lot of people in villages don’t have such phones. We’re trying to get SMSes via feature phones also. But the main thing is, people should be educated on how lightning strikes happen and how to protect oneself.

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