Ambient Weather Support

What is a Lightning Detector and how do they work?

What is a Lightning Detector?

A lightning detector is a device that detects lightning produced by thunderstorms.

Personal lightning detectors are popular among golfers, campers, law enforcement, sports officials, and other persons who work or recreate outdoors.

Personal lightning detectors function by detecting the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) emitted by a lightning strike. By measuring the strength of the detected EMP, the device can then estimate how far away the detected strike was. When exposed to multiple detected strikes, some personal lightning detectors can even calculate and extrapolate the direction of the storm's movement relative to its position (approaching, departing, or stationary).

How does a Personal Lightning Detector Work?

Have you ever heard the crackling of a lightning strike on your AM radio? A lightning strike has a distinct waveform that can be processed and analyzed by detector hardware and software.

Through the application of electronics and software, personal lightning detectors identify and track storm activity within 40 to 75 miles of your location.

The antenna detects electromagnetic field emissions from lightning activity within a storm cell. It then converts this data into digital signals and feeds them to its microprocessor for analysis.

In addition to identifying the waveforms characteristic of storm activity, personal lightning detectors perform continuous analysis of background electromagnetic interference (EMI) at your location.

Personal Lightning Detector Limitations

Although personal lightning detectors do function well in regards to their ability to detect nearby lightning, they are quite basic in functionality when compared to professional lightning detectors.

For example, they cannot tell where a lightning strike was located or from which direction the lightning is approaching, only that lightning is in the area. Also, since a personal lightning detector is triggered by EMPs, interference from other EMP-emitting devices (such as electronic equipment, appliances, nuclear weapons, fluorescent lights, and even car engines) can sometimes result in either false alarms or missed strikes.

This interference often has the additional effect of preventing personal lightning detectors from functioning properly while indoors. Despite these limitations, personal lightning detectors continue to increase in popularity among individuals and professionals.

PC Based Lightning Detectors

Similar to portable lighting detectors, PC lightning detectors connect directly to your PC and provide detailed strike data on your PC. An example and popular PC lightning detector is manufactured by Boltek.

Networked Lightning Detectors:

By networking lightning detectors through the power of the internet, an accurate strike location can be determined through triangulation (a geometric process determing the exact coordinates from three or more sources). On AmbientWeather.net, when one of our WH31L sensors registers a lightning strike it appears on the maps as a grayish circle. Darker circles are more recent and the radius of the circle shows the estimate of where the strike took place. The more Ambient Weather WH31L sensors in an area allows users to triangulate locations of local lightning strikes by comparing the overlapping grayish circles.

Siting your Lightning Detector

Lightning sensors detect a specific radio frequency wave form generated by lightning strikes. However, electronic devices like motors starting (HVAC units, lawn equipment), and fluorescent lighting can emit noisy electromagnetic field (EMF) signature that can generate a false positive lightning strike. To avoid false lightning strikes, move the detector away from any electrical noise-generating devices. Although electrical noise can be random in nature, another way to determine installation location is by using a portable AM radio set in between stations where you can hear white noise only and hold the radio close to the installation location. Any crackling heard on the radio may be detected by the WH31L lightning detector.

Ambient offers the WH31-SRS (https://ambientweather.com/wh31-srs-solar-radiation-shield) Solar Radiation Shield and Mounting Bracket to help users mount their WH31L sensor in the ideal location. The WH31-SRS includes hardware for pole mounting (up to 1.25" OD), vertical mounting to a horizontal surface (deck, top of a post/wall) or horizontal mounting to a vertical surface (fence post, wall).