Unidata Scientist Explains Colorado Summer Lightning — on TV!

Unidata's Jeff Weber is comfortable making scientific ideas easy for nonscientists to understand — he's one of the NCAR Science Wizards who make learning about the world fun for kids (and adults) during NCAR's annual Super Science Saturday events in Boulder, Colorado. Weber got another chance to explain an interesting phenomenon — the almost-daily lightning displays Coloradans have been seeing this July — to an even bigger audience when a local television meteorologist came to chat.

Unidata's Jeff Weber speaks with Denver TV meteorologist Marty Coniglio.

Residents of Colorado's front range have apparently been peppering Marty Coniglio, a meteorologist at Denver's channel 9 news, with questions about the seemingly unusual amount of lightning they've seen this summer. Coniglio came to Weber for answers, and ended up putting him and his explanation on the air.

Weber explains Colorado residents' experience of this July's lightning season as the result of three main factors. "First," he says, "is the fact that we're in the middle of the North American Monsoon here. The monsoon happens every year, but this year's has been fairly dramatic, so it may seem like there are more storms that usual."

Second, there has been a fair amount of hail generated by this year's storms. "So far, there have only been three days in July where there was not hail somewhere in Colorado," says Weber. "Because ice crystals give up their electric charge more readily than water droplets, the movement of all that hail up and down within the clouds leads to more lightning discharges."

Finally, the time when the storms occur affects how people perceive them. "Often the summer storms happen in the early afternoon, between 2-4pm," Weber explains. "This year they're mostly occurring in the early evening, between 6-9pm. That means that people are more likely to be at home when the storms hit, and they're more likely to notice the intracloud lightning, which is harder to see in full daylight."

The upshot, Weber told Coniglio, is that while the lightning storms seen along Colorado’s front range have been dramatic, they're not particularly unusual.

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