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Earth Matters

The Surreal Beauty of Lightning Seen from Space

March 9th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself transfixed by this newly released clip of lightning flashes flitting across Texas skies at night. These data were captured by the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), a first-of-its-kind sensor that was launched into space on GOES-16 (called GOES-R prior to launch) in November 2016. The sensor makes continuous observations of lightning flashes—a new capability that should markedly improve weather forecasts of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

The video clip—an animation of GLM observations overlaid on Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) cloud imagery—shows lightning flashing over southeast Texas on the morning of February 14, 2017. As explained by NOAA’s Michelle Smith, the green cross indicates the location of Houston, and the green dotted lines show the Texas coastline. Rendered at 25 frames per second, the animation simulates what your eye might see if it was above the clouds. GLM observes the scene at 500 frames per second, and can distinguish the location, intensity, and horizontal propagation of individual strokes within each lightning flash.