How it's made: Lightning Detection Explained: How It’s Used by the Weather Experts

This is our final blog post covering Category One: Weather Observations in the How It’s Made series.

So far in Category One we’ve explored weather stations, weather radar and weather satellites. To conclude this section on weather observations we’ll be looking today at the role Lightning Detection plays in weather observations. But there’s still plenty more to come in the How It’s Made series, which explores the Five Categories the create an accurate, reliable forecast. 

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During a thunderstorm, every lightning strike creates electromagnetic waves that travel through the atmosphere at the speed of light. Ground-based (terrestrial) antenna networks can detect these waves. Regional networks play a vital role in accurately identifying lightning with terrestrial systems.

Lightning can also be detected by satellites. The terrestrial networks have a higher level of accuracy; however, satellite data offers better coverage over the ocean.

By using terrestrial lightning detection, specific information can be discerned about each strike, including timestamp, location, and strength of the lightning. Although not all detection network parameters are the same, they typically allow us to discover:


  • The exact timestamp - some networks can pinpoint it within milliseconds
  • The exact geographical location - based on latitude and longitude
  • The type of lightning - whether it is cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground
  • The strength or amplitude of the lightning - this is expressed as the electric current in Ampere
  • The polarity of the lightning - whether it has a negative or positive charge
  • The height of the lightning above ground in the case of cloud-to-cloud strikes
  • The accuracy of the localization


By combining this insight, with expert analysis from meteorologists, it is possible to understand the exact nature of each lightning strike.


What data is available from lightning detection?


"High accuracy lightning data together with weather radar images allow us to track thunderstorms and issue timely warnings for our customers.”

- Dr Marco Radke-Fretz
Data Manager

Weather experts will purchase and process data from a range of sources, depending on location and need: 

For Europe: The Nowcast (Ubimet) operated Linet system has the highest detection efficiency available at up to 99% and boasts location accuracy of up to 100m. Siemens operates BLIDS. UK Met Office operates SFUK.

For Canada: MeteoGroup-owned and operated network.

Global Coverage: Earth Networks provide TLN data (this offers high accuracy for both types of lightning strike, focusing on North America, Brazil, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Europe) and GLN data (delivers cloud-to-ground detection only, with a detection efficiency between 60 and 95% and a location accuracy between 300 and 2,000m).

Other detection networks include the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLN) at the University of Washington and also, which offers non-commercial global detection data in real-time.

Additionally, this information is supplemented by some satellites, for example, GOES-16 and -17, provide data for the western Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. This is primarily where terrestrial network coverage is not sufficient.

How do weather experts improve the data to create a forecast?


Weather experts improve the data by using their own end-to-end lightning data-processing system; they can offer near real-time visualization of the data, aggregating the data for different grids and timestamps. They also combine the lightning data with radar to help identify active thunderstorms.

As well as using the data to identify current and forecasted weather events, they also use it to measure and record annual lightning density (the number of strikes per area) and to analyze historical lightning data to consult and support their customers.

Detection helps minimize the impact on businesses

As lightning impacts operations and projects in a wide range of weather-critical businesses from the construction industry to energy generators, access to accurate and complete data, with customizable coverage is essential to mitigate risk.

By using an end-to-end lightning data-processing system, weather experts support their customers to get more value from the data. A high-density network ensures the data is accurate and reliable, minimizing the risk of false alarms for businesses while ensuring that safety is maintained.


Download your copy of "How It’s Made: The Ultimate Guide to Weather Forecasting" below:

Download Now


High accuracy lightning data together with weather radar images allow us to track thunderstorms and issue timely warnings for our customers.

Marco Radke-Fretz

Data Manager (Data Provisioning)