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Mountaintop lab on the cutting edge of lightning research

Lightning can happen nearly everywhere on Earth. At one lab at the top of a mountain in New Mexico, researchers not only look for lightning - they encourage it to happen.
It takes a drive up unpaved roads to reach a series of labs at the top of the Magdalena Mountains in New Mexico, part of the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, lightning gets up close and personal.
Lightning rods are critical tools that help protect people all over the world from lightning and improving lightning rods were an important part of the lab's mission. Here, researchers are seen above an underground "kiva," which allows them to do research on lightning, while safely inside.
Among the lightning research going on at the Langmuir Lab is how climate change is affecting lightning and its impact on the ground, particularly in starting wildfires in the West.
Posted at 11:43 AM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 14:43:19-04

SOCORRO, N.M. — Nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, where you feel like you can nearly touch the sky, that's where we followed researcher Richard Sonnenfeld underground.

"The Indians had kivas, so we ended up calling it a kiva," he said. “So, lightning can strike the top of it and no problem."

Sonnenfeld is a professor of physics at New Mexico Tech University and part of a team of researchers studying lightning at the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research.

"No pun intended: I get a charge out of my work," Sonnenfeld said.

The underground kiva structure is part of a series of labs at the top of the Magdalena Mountains in New Mexico. It’s a place where lightning gets up close and personal, as captured in a video the lab shared with us.

"It's a place where we can put a variety of instruments to measure electric fields, to measure particles, to do high-speed photography,” Sonnenfeld said. "Thunderstorm research is a fairly small field. You can't just go out and buy the state-of-the-art instruments that we use."

Studying lighting is a huge part of the nearly 60-year-old Langmuir Lab's mission. During that time, researchers here made important discoveries.

"Lightning rods were actually improved for the first time since Ben Franklin. They learned that a completely pointy rod, which is still allowed, is not as effective as a somewhat rounded rod," Sonnenfeld said.

Lightning rods are critical tools that help protect people worldwide from lightning, for example, by attracting lightning to the top of tall buildings so it doesn't hit the ground.

"It's immensely complex,” he said. “It's a spark that can last up to a second, that can travel ten miles. It can travel more."

It can also kill.

So far this year, 13 people have been killed by lightning strikes in states from coast to coast, including in Florida, California, Ohio, Kentucky, and Maryland.

Earlier this month, three people were killed when lightning hit a park near The White House. Among the three killed were James and Donna Mueller, a married couple from Wisconsin who were in their 70s.

"It is just a shock to process that,” said their neighbor, Jacqui Hein, “and it's a shock to process that it happened to people that are so close to you."

At Langmuir Lab, much is still to be discovered about what causes these powerful electric bolts.

"I've been working on it for 20 years and still have a lot to learn,” Sonnenfeld said.

That includes how climate change is affecting lightning and its impact on the ground, particularly in starting wildfires in the West.

“Lightning is going to be an increasing problem with climate change,” Sonnenfeld said. “A lot of instrumentation we've developed can give firefighters earlier warning of a dangerous lightning strike -- and they're already starting to use it -- but we can do that even better."

In the meantime, researchers say people should remember one important thing: to protect themselves and respect this powerful aspect of the planet's weather.

"The best thing to know about lightning safety is if you can hear thunder, you really should be inside,” Sonnenfeld said. “Journalists often ask, 'Well, what do I do if I'm outside?' and the best answer is, 'Go Inside.'"