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Lightning may predict hurricane intensity

By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Scientists have discovered a link between increased lightning and the strongest winds in hurricanes, a study reports online this week in the British journal Nature Geoscience.

Lead author Colin Price of Tel Aviv University in Israel and colleagues found a significant increase in lightning about a day before the most intense winds in the hurricanes they studied. The authors say this bit of advance warning could lead to better intensity forecasts.

Price and his team tracked the wind speeds of all Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones around the world from 2005 to 2007 and compared them with global lightning data. (Category 4 storms have sustained wind speeds of 131 mph and above.) "Of the 58 hurricanes analyzed, only two showed no significant correlation between lightning and wind speed," the authors report.

Though hurricane track predictions have become significantly more accurate in recent decades, the accuracy of hurricane intensity forecasts have remained about the same.

"One of our biggest challenges is in providing skillful intensity prediction in our one- to five-day forecasts," Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said in an e-mail. "So any method for assisting NHC in these predictions is welcome."

Price says real-time lightning data have become far more accessible in recent years and can now be monitored continuously at any location around the globe.

Other scientists agree that the study has merits but say additional research is needed to determine whether a link exists. "Can the authors' observations be translated into improved forecasts of hurricane intensity? Perhaps, but not without much more work," meteorologist John Brown of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., said in an e-mail.

Joe Golden, also an NOAA meteorologist, agrees: "This study is heavy on statistics and weak on the physical linkages between lightning and hurricanes."

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