Lightning Detection: Everything You Need to Know 

Throughout this weather technology guide, we’ll cover lightning detection topics like the science behind it, frequently asked questions, lightning detection tools, and more.

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What is Lightning Detection?

Lightning detection animated GIF with rolling clouds and lightning flahses

Lightning detection is the process of detecting lightning produced by thunderstorms.

There are three basic ways to detect lightning.

A dark blue "1" in a red circle Acoustic

A dark blue "2" in a red circle Optical

Electric Fields

These methods differ in how they detect lightning and some are more sophisticated than others.

A red and orange ear iconFor example, acoustic lightning detection simply refers to hearing thunder to detect lightning. We wouldn’t want people or business to plan from this detection method, so we don’t consider it operational.

We’ll leave that one out as we examine some reliable, operational examples of optical and electric field detection. These methods are the best way to perform accurate lightning detection of real-time lightning strikes.


Red eye iconA reliable example of optical lightning detection is through space based global positioning satellites.

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) is a satellite-borne transient detector placed on the GOES-16 satellite in geostationary orbit.

That’s a mouthful! The best way to understand GLM is to understand it as a really, really advanced camera in space.

When we say they’re goestationary, that just means they don’t move. So these detectors are continuously looking at the same spot.

There is one that looks at the eastern U.S., Atlantic Ocean, and South America, and there is another in the west that looks at Hawaii and the Pacific Ocean.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates this advanced piece of lightning detection equipment.

How To Detect Lightning – Optical

This very high-resolution digital camera observes with a frequency of 777nm (nanometers). This is the frequency that oxygen radiates at.

When lightning heats the air, it radiates the air and gives off light. This frequency escapes the clouds so satellite-based cameras can capture it.

This lightning detection method is great for finding real-time lightning strikes.

While this method can’t differentiate between in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, it is a great tool for getting an idea of how big a lightning flash was horizontally.

Electric Fields

A white lightning bolt with red outlineThe other method used by most operational lightning detection networks is through electric fields or radio waves.

This method pairs well with ground based systems rather than space based. This is the method our total lightning detection network uses!

Thunderstorm Development

Understanding how lightning detection works starts with understanding how thunderstorms (and lightning) form.

Lightning is an electric current that starts in a cloud. When the ground is hot, it heats the air above it. As the hot air rises, water vapor cools and forms a cloud.

As air continues to rise the cloud gets bigger and bigger. In the top of the clouds the temperature is below freezing and water vapor turns to ice.

Now this is what we consider a thundercloud. The ice particles then bump into each other as they move around and build up electric charges.

Eventually, the entire cloud fills up with these electrical charges. The lighter, positive charges form at the top of the cloud while the heavier, negative charges sink to the bottom.

When these charges grow large enough, a giant spark occurs between them within the cloud. We call this in-cloud lightning.

Some lightning happens in between the cloud and the ground. We call this cloud-to-ground lightning.

Total lightning is the combination of all in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. 

How To Detect Lightning – Lightning & Radio waves

Lightning strikes give off pulses. When a cloud-to-ground lightning strike occurs it gives off a very large pulse of current.

We call this large pulse of current a return stroke in cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. In-cloud strikes also have strokes, but on a much smaller scale.

When a pulse happens, we can measure it in hertz like microwaves, AM bands, and FM bands.

There are a lot of different bands within a radio we can use to detect lightning, including:

A red check mark with a transparent background Low frequency (LF)

A red check mark with a transparent background Mid frequency (MF)

A red check mark with a transparent background Very high frequency (VHF)

Our Earth Networks Total Lightning Network uses MF. VHF is best for physics and scientific research, not operational lightning detection.

What About Lightning Prediction?

Chances are, you may have heard the term lightning “prediction” before. We put “prediction” in quotes because it doesn’t even detect lightning.

In fact, lightning prediction is a very misleading concept. While the name suggests the system can predict lightning before it happens, that is actually impossible. What these single-node prediction systems do is measure electrostatic force in the atmosphere.

This method has a few, huge problems. First of all, electrostatic events aren’t always lightning. This can lead to a lot of false alarms.

Another issue is that these systems can’t detect or warn of other incoming severe weather threats.

The last big issue with lightning prediction systems is that they are extremely difficult to place and maintain.

Reputable lightning scientists and meteorologists know lightning prediction doesn’t work, so you should not use it for safety or planning operations. If you’re still not convinced, please read this scientific guide.

Click to download our guide: Total Lightning Detection vs. "Prediction" Which System actually works?

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Lightning Detection Network

Now that you know the science behind thunderstorms and lightning detection, it’s time to move onto how we do it with our lightning detection system.

To accurately detect lightning using radio waves, you need more than one sensor.

That’s why on-off sensors or “lightning prediction” technology are not safe to use in an operational lightning detection scenario.

A lightning detection network is a great way to detect real-time lightning strikes because it has several sensors at least (ours has over 1,000!) We’ll break down how to detect lightning in 3 easy-to-follow steps.

Step 1: Detecting a Strike

When lightning gives off radio waves in an electric field, we have lightning detection equipment to detect it.

Since lightning gives off such a strong pulse, it’s relatively easy to pick up with antennae. Our lightning sensors are antennae that look like metal cylinders.

We have these cylinders all over the world. When lightning flashes and sends out a pulse, our lightning detectors pick up this pulse.

Depending on where our sensors are, they will receive the pulse at different times: Those sensors located closest to the pulse will receive it first while those farther away will receive it later.

Step 2: Locating Strikes

Locating lightning strikes is all an equation to find the time of arrival, or the location and time of a lightning strike.

Let’s say you have three sensors.

three lightning sensors

Then a lightning strike happens near your sensors.

three sensors and a lightning strike to demonstrate how lightning detection works

Each sensor will receive that pulse at a different time depending on their distance from the pulse. The distances are represented by the red lines in the graph below.

three lightning detection sensors with a lightning strike and distances between each sensor and the strike

A constant difference in the arrival time at two stations defines a hyperbola, and multiple stations provide multiple hyperboles whose intersections define a lightning source location.

three lightning sensors, a lightning strike, and hyperbolas that repsentat the difference in times

Once we find out the differences in time, where they all overlap is where the lightning strike should have happened.

You can get more into the math, but this should allow you to conceptualize how our lightning detection equipment works.

Step 3: Transmitting and Alerting

Now that we know when and where the lightning strike happens, we use other lightning detection equipment to share this information.

Each of our cylinder-shaped sensors have a circuit board. This circuit board does analog stuff and filtering, which converts the pulse into a digital signal.

This digital signal is how we power our lightning safety equipment, such as our lightning horn or our lightning detection map, which allow us to track lightning activity and issue lightning alerts.

You can check out how many lightning strikes we detected in the United States last year in our 2019 U.S. Lightning Report.

2019 United States Lightning Report - Click here to view the Report

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Lightning Detection Maps & Apps

To promote lightning safety, a lot of organizations like schools, golf courses, and mines use lightning maps and lightning apps.

These tools – when connected to reliable total lightning network information – help decision-makers track lightning strikes and thunderstorms in real time. That way, they can suspend activities and move stakeholders to safety before the threat arrives.

Keep reading this section to learn the basics of these maps and apps.

Lightning Detection Map

A lightning detection map shows in-cloud and cloud-to-ground pulses in real-time. You can access these maps on laptops, desktop computers, or any display with internet connectivity. Our lightning detection map is Sferic Maps.

DTAs as storms moved across Texas into Oklahoma

Plenty of people use lightning detection maps. Some people are just curious about the weather and like to see where storms are or where the closest lightning strike is.

But for many, lightning maps are the key to operational continuity and overall safety. When you can see lightning and other key alerts happening in real time, you can plan your operations and protect your assets.

Learn more about our lightning map to see if it’s the right fit for your business.

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Other Features

Other useful features of accurate lightning maps include cell tracks, thunderstorm warnings, and National Weather Service information and alerts.

Cell tracks show where thunderstorms cells are and often change in color to depict the overall frequency of lightning. For example, our cell tracks with low lightning frequencies are green while high frequency cells show up as red.

National Weather Service severe thunderstorm watches and warnings are another aspect of our lightning map that helps users understand how severe a storm is, what conditions are coming, and where the storm is moving.

Dangerous Thunderstorm Alerts

Some lightning detection maps have other advanced alerting capabilities. For example, we issue Dangerous Thunderstorm Alerts (DTAs) on our lightning and weather map, Sferic Maps.

Dangerous Thunderstorm Alerts on our real-time hyperlocal weather and lightning detection map, Sferic Maps

Our total lightning network generates these alerts for storm cells with very high frequencies of total lightning. When we issue a DTA, users know they’re about to experience conditions like high winds, hail, and very frequent lightning. How?

It all starts with detecting in-cloud lightning strikes. In-cloud lightning strikes not only make up over 80% of all lightning pulses, but also are a precursor to other dangerous conditions. That means we can use in-cloud lightning to give advanced warning to dangerous weather conditions like high rainfall rates, hail, high winds, tornadoes, and even cloud-to-ground lightning strikes.

DTAs aren’t your average thunderstorm warning. They’re the most technologically advanced lightning alerts. When a DTA pops up on your weather map or app, you can find out details like:

Storm direction

Storm speed

Storm size

In-cloud lightning flash rates

Cloud-to-ground lightning flash rates

Total lightning flash rates

Start and end times for the alert

Imagine all the planning and safety precautions you can take with all that information!

Lightning Detection App

A person holding a cell phone showing Sferic Mobile, our mobile weather alerts, in action

Lightning detection apps work similarly to maps, but they’re perfect for people on-the-go. We call our lightning detection app Sferic Mobile.

Typically, Sferic Mobile users are people like athletic trainers, parks and recreation directors, and anyone else that can’t sit in front of a computer all day.

Our lightning detection app has the same capabilities as our lightning detection map. So whether you’re stationary or moving around, you’re still protected with real-time alerts.

Another important thing to look for in lightning maps and apps is the ability to customize alerts. For any lightning warning system, you want customizable alerts. That way you choose how close the lightning must be to generate an alert, which location the alert is for, what the action item(s) will be, and how your organization will respond.

You can learn more about Sferic Mobile and how your business can track weather on-the-go by clicking the button below.

Learn More

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Lightning Safety

The main reason organizations use lightning detection is for safety.

Whether they’re protecting expensive equipment, sensitive materials, or human lives, organizations need total lightning detection to guide their decisions.

Below are some lightning safety tips you can use no matter where you are or what type of organization you work for. Please share this page with everyone you think may need to brush up on their lightning safety.

Lightning safety tips anyone can use! Click To Tweet

Outdoor Lightning Safety

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleDon’t get caught outside

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleAvoid open areas: Don’t be the tallest object in an area

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleStay away from isolated tall trees, towers, or utility poles as lightning strikes the taller objects in an area

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleStay away from metal conductors such as wires or fences

If Lightning Strikes Someone

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleIf someone is struck, call 911 and help immediately. Lightning strike victims do not carry currents and are safe to touch

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleGive first aid, begin CPR if necessary

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleUse an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) if one is available

Avoiding Lightning Threats

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleHave a lightning safety plan: Know where you’ll go for safety and ensure you’ll have enough time to get there

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circlePostpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleMonitor the weather once outside and look for signs of developing or approaching thunderstorms (towering clouds, darkening skies, flashes of lightning)

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleWhen thunder roars, go indoors to a fully enclosed building with wiring and plumbing or hard-topped metal vehicle with windows closed

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleStay in a lightning safe shelter for at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleIf you hear thunder, don’t use a corded phone or a cell phone that’s plugged into the wall (except in an emergency)

A yellow lightning bolt in a blue circleKeep away from electrical equipment and plumbing as lightning will travel through wiring and plumbing if it strikes your building


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Lightning Detection for Businesses

Every business needs to use lightning detection tools as part of their weather safety plan. Everyone from parks and recreation departments to school districts to international freight organizations deal with the weather at some point.

It doesn’t matter if you are outside enjoying the fresh air for fun or working hard on something outdoors: Lightning can still strike.

In this section, we’ll focus on lightning detection for airport operations and golf courses as they experience high levels of risk from lightning because of their operations, size, and layouts.

Aircraft Lightning Protection

A bolt of lightning striking a plane while the plan is in-flight

With lightning detection and lightning safety at airports, there is a lot to cover. Not only do you have to worry about aircraft lightning protection, but ground operations, too. Lightning strikes can hit planes and other equipment on the ground which can injure and even kill crew members.

Airport operations also must consider the impact of weather on their business. According to the Federal Aviation Industry, 69% of all air traffic delays in the National Airspace System are because of weather.

Lightning is the Top Weather Threat for Airport Operations

A circular red icon of an airplaneOver 75% of respondents in a recent Earth Networks airport weather safety survey ranked lightning above all other forms of severe weather for business impacts, including fog, rain, and wind.

To protect aircrafts and overall operations from lightning, many airports, airlines, and fixed-based operators use outdoor lightning sirens with custom settings to optimize on-time performance. Once you get a lightning horn, we recommend the following safety parameters:

A red check mark with a transparent background When to issue an alert to the operations team: 8 miles

A red check mark with a transparent background When to stop fueling & ramp operations: 5 miles

A red check mark with a transparent background When to resume operations: 15 minutes

Other lightning safety tools for airport operations include real-time weather maps, mobile weather maps, and 24/7 meteorological support. You can learn more about lightning safety at airports by reading our Ultimate Lightning Guide for Airport Operations.

Golf Course Lightning Safety

Dramatic scene of lightning strike at a golf course

Aviation isn’t the only industry that must prioritize lightning safety. Golf courses and country clubs also focus on this important weather safety initiative.

When you think about it, golf courses are the perfect place for lightning strikes. These large fields rarely have nearby lightning safe shelters, can take a long time to evacuate when storms are coming, and have plenty of trees, water features, and other natural lightning conductors.

Golf course lightning safety is different at every course or club. But it always starts with being prepared with the right tools, policies, and a serious mindset.

The right lightning safety kit for golf courses includes:

A red check mark with a transparent background Horn and strobe alerting system to get golfers and spectators off the course in plenty of time to seek shelter

A red check mark with a transparent background Weather visualization tool to track incoming storms

A red check mark with a transparent background Meteorological support

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Lightning Detection & Other Weather Topics

A skinny red lightning bolt over a grey circleLightning detection is important for both safety and science. It’s important to remember that real lightning detection is an exact science – not a guessing game – that relies on established, professional-grade total lightning networks.

Once you have a trusted lightning detection network, you can use their lightning detection maps and lightning detection apps to keep your organization safe and increase overall lightning safety. It doesn’t matter if your organization is an airport, a golf course, or something else: Lightning detection is important!

Now that you know a lot about lightning detection, you can continue to grow your meteorological knowledge on our Weather 101 page.

Learn about lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, and more or test your existing weather knowledge with quick quizzes.

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