99 fried weather bal­loons

Popular Science - - TALES FIELD - DON MACGORMAN,

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.

As told to Cici Zhang / il­lus­tra­tion by Laura Breil­ing

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