Sandia LabNews

Three lightning detection systems alert outdoor workers that electrical storms are in area

Everyone knows that working outside when lightning strikes can be dangerous. But at Sandia it’s less dangerous than most work places.

The reason? Three lightning detection systems give workers early warning that electrical storms are in the area. Two of those protect people working with explosives, and the third protects everyone.

EOC system

About three years ago Sandia’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) replaced an unreliable system that measured lightning potential with one that provides information on generally where and when lightning strikes occur.

Sandia’s sole meteorologist, Gina Deola (10333), worked with the EOC to determine which system to buy and where to put it. At her suggestion, Sandia purchased a system from the Arizona-based company Vaisala that consists of a sensor placed on a five-foot concrete pedestal just north of Tech Area 3 in the middle of the desert.

When lightning strikes anywhere within a 30- and 15-mile radius of Sandia, the information acquired by the sensor is transmitted via a modem to a computer in the EOC, located in the basement of Bldg. 801. Data concerning strikes are instantly displayed.

Software called WARN produces on a computer screen in the EOC a pie-shaped chart centered over a map of Sandia that consists of 16 30-mile pie-wedge-shaped sectors and 16 15-mile pie-wedge-shaped sectors. They show the general area where the lightning strikes are occurring. When there are five or more strikes in a sector, the sector turns red. Less than five, it is yellow. Sometimes — like at 7:45 p.m. on Aug. 21 during a riveting lightning storm — the entire pie turns red.

John Sensi (10337), who manages the computer system, says when any quadrant turns red, an alarm alerts EOC communication coordinators. They then send a text page message to about 200 Sandians warning them that lightning is in the area. The people on the page list have all requested to be notified when lightning strikes are in the area. Most work outside as groundskeepers, at the Solar Tower, at Coyote Canyon, or are contractors at construction sites.

“This is our best effort to warn people working outside about lightning strikes,” John says. “It doesn’t predict where strikes will occur, it just tells them that lightning strikes are happening in the area.”

Over the past several weeks, the monitoring system has been busy, John says. There has been hardly an afternoon when some sectors or all have not been red, and workers have not been paged.

People wishing to be added to the pager lightning strike advisory list should call the EOC at 844-6511.

Two lightning warning systems protect explosives workers

Sandians working with explosives have two lightning warning systems.

“Obviously it is really important to keep people working outdoors with explosives informed about possible lightning,” says Amarante Martinez (1535), who operates the lightning warning systems for field testing groups. “Even conditions with high electric static conditions that may not produce lightning can be a problem and force operations to shut down. That’s why we use these two systems.”

One system is a Lightning Early Warning System (LEWS), a commercial product that, through a satellite, monitors lightning strikes throughout the country. However, Sandia has only purchased rights to monitor strikes within a 120-mile radius of the Labs and closely watches strikes in a 60-mile range. All data are archived.

As an example, Amarante points out that within a 24-hour period Aug. 22-23, there were 323 lightning strikes in a 120-mile radius of Sandia and 39 strikes in a 60-mile range.

The second system, which consists of 14 probe sensors on candy cane-shaped five-foot poles, is homegrown, designed by Sandia engineers.

“This is a system Sandia developed on its own because of need,” Amarante says. “It’s gone through many renditions with the most recent version put on the web two years ago. It is available to any Sandia group that wants to subscribe.”

The 14 probes — located primarily in Area 3 where field testing is routinely done but also in other locations around Sandia including Mt. Washington, the Eubank Gate, and Sandia’s munitions storage facility — transmit data constantly. The information is put on a website. The sensors detect volts per meter (V/m). When V/m is at 1,000 or less there is no advisory. An advisory is issued at 1,000 to 2,000 V/m, a yellow code, and at 2,000 V/m and above, a red code. If lightning is in the vicinity, it’s not unusual to reach 7,000 V/m. That’s definitely time to suspend outdoor work!

Organizations subscribe to the web-based lightning monitoring system. Amarante says explosives testing groups constantly monitor the website while preparing for and staging tests.

“They know they are in danger if the V/m goes into the red zone,” he says.

Recently subscribers have been given pagers that provide text page messages whenever V/m at any probe site reaches the yellow zone warning level.

Some organizations have local probes at their locations just in case the web and radio frequency repeater go down. They provide the same type of V/m information in the consoles.

“The warnings provided by both the web and portable sensors have definitely saved lives,” Amarante says. “People need to know when and how to get to a safe area or vehicle. And we do follow the 30-30 rule, which is not to resume outdoor activities until 30 minutes after the last audible thunder.”

Sandia offers meteorological service

In addition to the three lightning monitoring systems, Sandia has a well established meteorology program run by the Labs’ sole meteorologist Gina Deola (10333).

For more than a decade Gina has kept track of wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity, and other weather data by managing eight tower stations equipped with instrumentation scattered throughout Sandia and KAFB. The sensors provide information important to emergency management, environmental activities, and researchers doing outdoor tests. It is also used by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in modeling plume flow in case of accidental chemical spills.

The information obtained through the network is placed on a website ( and is available for anyone at Sandia to view. The monitoring program also provides Labs-wide customer support, upon request, with additional meteorological instrumentation.