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Research into rare lightning bolts at Georgia Tech could help meteorologists better predict storms

ATLANTA — It’s a weather phenomenon few have seen, and weather scientists know very little about: lightning bolts that shoot upward into space.

Now, researchers at Georgia Tech are helping to lead the way when it comes to understanding them.

Severe Weather Team 2 Chief Meteorologist Glenn Burns spoke with one of those researchers about the incredible weather event called gigantic jets.

A gigantic jet is a lightning bolt that shoots out of a cloud and into space.

Getting new data about the incredibly strong bolts of lightning could change the way meteorologists track storms and warn you about threats.

The first one discovered was as recent as 2002 near Puerto Rico, using a special nighttime camera.

“People thought they were crazy, and we just had pencil drawings for the longest time,” Georgia Tech research scientist Levi Boggs told Burns. “Since then, most observations are just kind of randomly with people with smartphones or people kind of doing astrophotography, looking up at the sky with digital cameras.”

A gigantic jet begins like any other lightning bolt in a cloud, but escapes from the top.

Gigantic jets have been spotted by airline passengers and pilots from a distance.

“A lot of airliners go around the storm and they fly at about 30,000 feet. For these types of events. the cloud top itself is about 50,000 feet,” Boggs said.

NASA shared an image of a gigantic jet from a passenger flying between Munich and Singapore in 2019.

Scientists at Georgia Tech’s Severe Storms Research Center have a three-year grant to study the gigantic jets using a lightning mapping array, which is a network of antennas, receivers and other equipment used to detect lightning.

“We actually got a gigantic jet to initiate over one of these networks, just a total coincidence,” Boggs said.

Georgia Tech took the data collected by the lightning mapping array to create an image that breaks down the makeup of the weather event.

Researchers at Tech told Burns they hope understanding gigantic jets will help them understand how they impact the upper atmosphere, space, and storms here on earth.

“We could potentially predict certain types of severe weather by detecting these events,” Boggs said.

The lightning bolts have been found in various stages of tropical storms and hurricanes.

The ability to record and understand gigantic jets could tell us when a storm is ramping up or de-intensifying.

“We should really be able to nail down the relationship between these events and tropical cyclone intensity,” Boggs said.

Tropical storm intensity is sometimes one of the more difficult factors to forecast. Often, it’s only observed during hours-long flights through storms or on the ground by storm chasers.

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