(How to use the lightning detection network, read signs of change in the sky and know well ahead of time what kind of weather you are stumbling into!)
by Joey Only
I have a hard time comprehending that people are taken by surprise when the weather aligns to spew down a monster tornado. But then again this is the new age where peoples heads are down reading texts as they go from their car into McDonalds. We have become a society that does not pay attention to the things going on around us and we take a great many things in our daily lives for granted. People are disconnected from nature enough that often the environment itself tells one exactly what is going on while they are completely numb to the signs. If there’s something to pay attention to in life I would have to say severe weather is a good place to start.
A lot of people in Canada worry themselves senseless about the possibility of being attacked by a bear when statistics show you are probably somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15x more likely to be killed by lightning which averages 10 killed and 160 people severely injured every summer in Canada. Lightning isn’t your only summer weather related danger either, I have been in the wilderness when severe weather arrives and I can think of nothing scarier than being in a dense forest when a major wind event happens. I have seen the aftermath of such situations where trees are torn up, twisted and strewn about so that anything walking through there when that would have happened would have nowhere to hide.
Avoiding these kinds of things is relatively easy. It starts by first understanding how weather works. I am not going to waste my time here telling you what creates a thunderstorm, you can google that yourself, but I will give a hint by telling you that the clouds will often tell you hours and sometimes a full day in advance if a serious low pressure system is coming. The best signs are always when there’s a real thin cloud cover at a very high elevation and those clouds are intensely spotty or have visible lines. There’s also a variety of these clouds which looks to have a sweeping motion and is also seen in the stratosphere called Mares Tails, these are great indicators of the possibility of bad weather forming in some distant location. It may look nice out in the morning but if you see these kinds of clouds it may be a sign that the heat of the afternoon may conjure up a thunderstorm. The link below will help me to illustrate this for you.
Here is a blog with a great diagram you can look at. You can see how the cirrocumulus and altocumulus clouds proceed the storm in the diagram. The stratus clouds too can often be a sign of low pressure in the distance, these types of clouds are sometimes hundreds of kilometers in advance of the main low pressure system and other times right on the storms doorstep. The direction of their spread and travel is evident in their formations. If you were a sailor on the ocean you would pay attention to the intensity of these warning clouds, the greater the intensity the more you can assume about the impending weather. Also take note that the majority of powerful thunderstorms take place in the late afternoon to early evening, so if you’ve been seeing these warning signs and it’s a hot day you will again have a clue as to the kind of intensity to expect if an afternoon storm approaches.
Most people don’t have to guess at the weather because they have access to television and internet in their daily lives. There’s no harm in checking Environment Canada two or three times in a day. If you check in the morning and it says risk of a thunderstorm check again in the afternoon to see if a severe weather Watch or Warning has been issued for your area. If you’re area falls under a severe thunderstorm warning it means that a dangerous storm is imminent, then prepare for it.
Also on the Environment Canada webpage is the Lightning Danger Map. This is also a good tool to use if you suspect severe weather is approaching, it is updated every ten minutes to show you the location of all lightning strikes across the country. When the storm arrives take cover and stay safe until the storm is well past, 50% of people struck by lightning are hit when they believe the danger has passed. Lightning can reach a long way from the storm cell leading some to say that you ought to stay under cover until 30 minutes after the storm has passed. Environment Canada and other weather reporting organizations also have radars and satellite images on their websites which allow you to see exactly what is going on out there.
Everything that the government thinks you should know about lightning is found on the above link including steps to safety precautions, which places garner the most lightning activity and how lightning works. Reading this will expand your knowledge greatly, as it is lightning is unpredictable and if you are in a location that’s about to be struck the only warnings you’ll get is your hair standing on end for a minute…and then a few seconds where you might feel the ions charging which will leave you at that point with no time to escape the impending doom!
There’s another great way to track lightning and that’s to tune into your AM radio and listen for the disruptive crackle. I have triangulated storms by switching between channels transmitted from known locations to see what direction the strongest interference is coming from.
The link above is a blog I wrote about some of the successful low-tech storm chases I have embarked on. I tried as best as I could to write about what the weather was doing to give you an idea of how the storms developed.
A severe storm can produce tornadoes. If there’s a section of the storm that sits well below the clouds base/wall cloud (most often at the rear of the system), you see signs of rotation in the clouds, you feel whisps of dry-hot/wet-cold wind and the sky is turning green colors it might be a good sign of the possibility of tornado. Hail is a great indicator of the power of a systems updraft for that is how it becomes what it is, if there’s an updraft there is always the possibility of a downdraft which can be violent. In this way tornadoes are not the only wind event you ought to worry about, plough/straight winds, downdrafts and microbursts can sometimes blast out of a storm with just as much violence as a tornado and they don’t give you the benefit of a development so easily observed making such things harder to predict.
If you are in the great outdoors and a storm approaches do not hide under a tree, lightning could strike the tree and wind could rip branches off. The lowest location you can find is always the best thing to look for. An all metal vehicle with rubber tires is as safe a place as any to observe lightning but if you were ever to see that storm turn tornadic your vehicle would become the most unsafe place to be. Again you would be best served to find the lowest location you can get to, even a ditch is often enough to shield oneself from the fury of the tornado. Not only would you have a much better chance of not being sucked off your feet but you would be below the flying debris which can be very dangerous. If you consider what it would be like to stand near a bomb going off you might be able to imagine that the blast itself is only part of the danger, it’s the flying shards of shrapnel that travel well outside the blast radius that maims even more people.
I have also learned to observe wind patterns closely. For example if it’s windy as all hell and then suddenly the wind appears to die for no particular reason then you should consider the possibility that the wind is being sucked straight up into the storm which is an important part of the process for a storm to develop cyclonic activity.
The link above is to one of the many active storm chasers in America, in this case some of the most successful guys. There are a lot of tools on this site to give you a better understanding of weather development. You have I-pads, internet, radio and you can also purchase weather radios and barometers. It’s very easy to track impending weather. If you know these things you should have no excuse when you are caught by surprise. Storms do not come from out of the blue, they develop in a fairly predictable and logical process that can be assessed well ahead of time to give you a sense of what the risks could be in your daily ventures. Don’t take the weather for granted! Don’t be caught out in it!