99 fried weather balloons
I’ve studied lightning for more than 40 years. It’s beautiful from afar, but my team gets pretty close. During storm season, we hang sensors from weather balloons and launch them up to study the bolts—sometimes from directly beneath a squall.
Lightning forms when ice particles smash into each other. Our imager captures them as small as one-tenth of a millimeter. Another sensor measures the electric field’s direction and magnitude. Understanding how this unfolds helps improve forecasts.
Some flashes stand out, even to me. There’s bead lightning, where parts of the strike stay bright longer so it seems to break into a string of gems. Spider lightning stretches along the bottom of a cloud, forming a web from one horizon to another.
Sometimes sensors show a huge electrical buildup—then zilch. That means a balloon’s been struck. But the sacrifice is worth it.