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Weather researcher hopes to capture elusive images of lightning striking the ground

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 10, 2013, at 8:58 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

Severe storms researcher Tim Samaras will be taking a special camera with him on his hunt for lightning this spring and summer.

The camera doesn’t fit in his pocket. Or the back seat of a car.

It’s about 6 feet tall and weighs 1,600 pounds.

He needs a 16-foot trailer to haul it around.

But it can take as many as 1.4 million frames per second.

That makes it the fastest, highest-resolution camera in the world.

With it, he hopes to give us a never-before-seen look at lightning as it strikes the ground.

“They say a picture tells a thousand words,” Samaras said. “We’re not exactly sure what we’re going to see ...

“My guess is it will probably shed some light on some of the interaction” between the ground and the storm “that we’ve never seen before.”

The images could provide the most detailed look at the physics of lightning ever recorded.

On average, lightning kills as many people as tornadoes. Five people in Kansas have been killed by lightning since 2002, according to data posted online by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It makes sense, Samaras said, that what scientists learn about lightning strikes could lead to increased safety, fueled by innovations.

“The imagery may actually evoke more questions than answers,” he cautioned. “A lot of the discoveries are actually accidental.

“When you’re looking at something nobody’s seen before, one doesn’t know what to expect.”

Samaras has actually been using the camera for government contracts since 1980. But the Cold War relic was deemed unneeded a few years ago and relegated to a surplus auction.

Samaras found himself competing with scrap metal dealers for the camera, which he bought for $600.

National Geographic agreed to help finance the conversion of the camera from analog to digital, which Samaras called “very complex” and not without setbacks.

But some technical problems that plagued shooting efforts last year appear to have been corrected, he said, so he enters this storm season with high hopes.

His ideal scenario would be a stationary or slow-moving thunderstorm that steadily produces lightning.

He has put a turret atop the truck so he can “spin around 360 degrees and point anywhere I want,” he said. “At least, that’s the hope.”

The key is getting the truck in the right place at the right time.

The camera shutter is activated by the flash of lightning, and takes 80 images – which then takes 20 minutes to download onto the two computers before it can be prepared for another shot.

Samaras plans to roam Tornado Alley throughout spring in search of promising storms before breaking off into Oklahoma to focus on lightning research in late May and early June in conjunction with the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

“I’ll take a break from tornado chasing to do lightning chasing,” he told a crowd at the recent national storm chaser convention in Denver, where the truck and camera were on display.

It’s a risk he admits “can be very painful, if there’s a high risk over South Dakota” while he’s hunting thunderstorms in Oklahoma.

But it’s worth the effort, he said.

“I’m the only guy on the planet that’s trying to photograph this point in time,” he said. “We hope that the imagery that we see will resolve some of the mystery of a lightning strike as it comes toward the ground.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter @StanFinger.

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