NOAA Scientists Hope to Unlock Secrets of Nighttime Thunderstorms

Posted May 20th, 2015 at 10:10 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Lightning flashes across the night sky (Carolina Ödman via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Lightning flashes across the night sky (Carolina Ödman via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Most thunderstorms get their incredible energy from the sun’s heat, but some of the storms gain their strength at night, baffling scientists.

To learn how these storms intensify, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA plans to keep 20 of its scientists up late at night for a large intensive field operation in the US western Great Plains called the Plains Elevated Convection at Night, or PECAN, over the summer months.

According to NOAA, soon after sunset Earth and its lower atmosphere tends to lose heat and becomes more stable. These conditions create a less than an ideal environment for supporting thunderstorms.

However, many summer thunderstorms, in the US Great Plains, take shape soon after the sun goes down and sometimes does so without an obvious trigger.

NOAA's PECAN researchers will gather data with a variety of instruments including weather balloons to learn what triggers large nighttime thunderstorms. (NOAA)

NOAA’s PECAN researchers will gather data with a variety of instruments including weather balloons to learn what triggers large nighttime thunderstorms. (NOAA)

Conrad Ziegler, PECAN’s principal scientist and a research meteorologist for NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory said that while large nighttime thunderstorms provide an important source of rain for crops, they can also produce widespread and potentially dangerous severe weather, excessive rainfall, flash flooding and unusually frequent cloud-to-ground lightning.

“Weather forecast models often struggle to accurately account for these, said Ziegler in a NOAA press release. “The PECAN field campaign will provide us with valuable insights-and improve our ability to save lives and property through more accurate forecasts.”

NOAA says that its scientists along with other investigators, students and support staff from eight research laboratories and 14 universities will gather data with appropriately equipped aircraft, a variety of ground-based instruments, mobile radars and weather balloons before and during nighttime thunderstorms.

NOAA scientists will study nighttime thunderstorms this summer to better understand and predict them. (NOAA)

NOAA scientists will study nighttime thunderstorms this summer to better understand and predict them. (NOAA)

The PECAN researchers will conduct their field investigation from June 1, 2015 to July 15, 2015 so that they will be able to better understand just what triggers thunderstorms, what role our atmosphere plays in supporting the storm’s lifecycle as well as the impact they have on the lives, property, agriculture and water budget in the US western Great Plains region.

NOAA meteorologists believe that the specially targeted PECAN observations will eventually lead to improved forecasts of these potentially damaging storms.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

One response to “NOAA Scientists Hope to Unlock Secrets of Nighttime Thunderstorms”

  1. John Esposito says:

    We had a nighttime thunder storm here in NC which I have never experienced until this year. It lasted for at least a half hour and took place sometime @ 2AM.