Tracking lightning in real time

By Frederic Friedel

Recently we had visitors, very pleasant people with whom we got on famously. The lady was Lotis, a former film star, a very spiritual, warm-hearted person, genuinely interested in everyone present at the dinner. With her adopted son Wesley, one of the best chess players in the world.

Lotis, Wesley and the family spend as little time as possible on the Internet, and in fact curtail the use of their mobile phone. It is not an Amish thing — they are not against technology as such, just want to spend as much time with human face-to-face interaction as possible. It is something we could emulate.

But there is a down side: you don’t really know what is going on, how the world is changing, year for year, month for month and often day by day. I had the following exchange with Lotis. I had mentioned that it was a monumental development that we now have the entire knowledge of the world at our fingertips. Well, not the entire knowledge, said Lotis, and at our fingertips? You exaggerate, Frederic. I said: “Okay, so ask me something — anything!”

“How old is Wesley, exactly?” Lotis ventured. Our son Tommy was present at the dinner table and he answered the question immediately: twenty-two years. Lotis was stunned: “What did he do? He spoke to his watch? And it answered!” Yes, indeed it did. Tommy of course has a smart watch that has a Bluetooth connection to his mobile phone, which in turn has voice recognition (“Okay Google…”) and can answer trivial questions instantly. Lotis’ world view changed.

That evening the weather was bright and clear, and there were planes criss-crossing the sky. I have a plane tracking app that allows me to point the camera towards one of the con trails to get a summary of the flight: which airline, what plane, en route to where, arrival time, number of passengers. All instantly, in real time. I have suggested that this Android hardware and tracking data can be used to reduce the search costs of mid-ocean crashes from a hundred million dollars to $75.

Unfortunately there was no storm brewing that evening, otherwise I would have shown Lotis the cloud and rain radar we use all the time, on our smart phones, deciding when to leave the house and go for walks.

Image for post
Image for post

The radar services, of which there are many, are highly accurate. They have a slider to show how the clouds are moving, and where they are actually precipitating. “We’ll leave in twenty minutes, when it stops raining,” my wife will say, after checking her mobile phone. “And we have a 90 minute dry slot.”

That is not the worst of it: I recently discovered that during storms they are tracking lightning bolts, and these are displayed in real time in an app on my smartphone. This is what it looks like:

The little red circles are lightening flashes. You can see the storm is fairly violent to the south of where we live, Hamburg. And there is something brewing in the north. That is amazing enough, but this site actually also displays the thunder claps as they propagate across the landscape:

This you have to witness: you see a red spot, a lightning flash, a few miles from your current location. Then a circle, the sound wave, grows slowly around it. When, some seconds later, it passes your house, you actually hear the rumble. All perfectly synchronized, in real time.

Image for post
Image for post

Go to this remarkable site when a storm is brewing. You will not regret it.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store