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Storm Catchers
October 29, 2010   
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A team of physicists and astronomers from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow have developed an innovative system for monitoring storms around the world. The system marks a breakthrough in meteorology, the researchers say.

The system makes it possible to observe a storm over the Sahara or in Turkey in real time. The researchers can not only accurately determine its force but also predict changes in its direction.

ELF, or extremely low frequency
While developing the system, the Cracow researchers spent 10 years analyzing specific waves of extremely low frequencies that are emitted by storms.

“Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves with frequencies of 1-100 Hz are only emitted by storms and cannot be confused with any other waves,” says the project manager, Andrzej Kulak, Ph.D., from the Jagiellonian University’s Astronomical Observatory. “They propagate over huge distances and constitute a ‘storm fingerprint’ because no other natural phenomenon causes such waves. Because these waves propagate around the world without any significant attenuation, we receive radiation—a wave—from every lightning discharge occurring anywhere in the world. Measuring certain features of this radiation, you can determine the distance to where it arose as well as the intensity of the source. You can monitor the waves hour by hour, how they move, how their intensity changes, and on that basis provide information on the distribution of storms in the world at any given moment.”

ELF waves propagate without losses over great distances, even up to 40,000 kilometers, Kulak says. Previously, storm measurement systems used Very Low Frequency (VLF) waves, 3-30 Hz, with an effective range of 300 km, and also auxiliary Very High Frequency (VHF) waves, 30-300 Hz, whose measurable range is no more than a few dozen kilometers. Due to the limited range of these waves, receiver stations had to be close together for storm monitoring to be thorough. In some areas, such as oceans or wildernesses, storms could not be observed at all.

No dead zones
The system designed by the Poles will have no dead zones. The network of receiver stations located at appropriately chosen sites will cover the entire globe, allowing scientists to monitor storms on a continuous basis, anywhere in the world. Three receiver stations—in Poland, Australia and Brazil—will be ready within six months; the target number is 18. The Polish station, located in the Bieszczady Mountains, has been in operation for more than 10 years. It was there that the astrophysicists from Cracow gradually made discoveries that led to the development of the global storm monitoring system.

“Many years ago, when our simple equipment recorded the first Schumann resonance spectrum, nobody had a clue that we were setting off on a new scientific journey,” Kulak says. “As radio astronomers studying the Sun, we were looking for a new averaged geophysical parameter that could depend on the Sun’s activity. The Schumann resonance field encompassing the whole planet fitted this requirement, and it was also an intriguing research topic that few people in the world were investigating. At first we were an informal group financed from private funds. We started performing sporadic, one-day observations repeated every few weeks. The equipment required good care from the observer, who had to spend time in deserted areas. The quality of the observations was high; the important thing was that being in the Bieszczady Mountains, we could observe the planet in its undisturbed state. The variability of the resonance parameters, sudden increases in the amplitude and a wealth of other phenomena exceeded our expectations. A more in-depth understanding of the observed phenomena was a great challenge, forcing us to undertake theoretical work and develop sophisticated signal analysis methods.”

Taking the world by storm
Today the Bieszczady station is fully automated, with state-of-the-art equipment and specialist software enabling the scientists to study the electromagnetic activity of the planet and its neighborhood. Apart from Schumann resonance, the station measures Alfven wave resonance in the ionosphere and magnetosphere. The last 10 years of research on the propagation of electromagnetic waves led to the discovery of an innovative method for recording and analyzing ultra-low-frequency waves caused by lightning discharges. The equipment designed as a consequence of this discovery enables scientists to monitor weather changes, not only nearby but also thousands of kilometers from the receivers.

The Bieszczady station can record a storm developing over Madrid, discharges in the Middle East and highs in Africa. The waves recorded by the equipment propagate a few kilometers under the earth’s surface, so the heart of the system—the antenna—is located underground. Its operation is observed at the station via a radio link.

A few years ago the scientists from UJ installed an identical piece of equipment in Chile, where they made similar measurements over a few weeks to check the new method in different conditions.

“For now, we can measure storms with an accuracy of up to a few hundred kilometers, but once we complete the system and place receivers at several sites in different parts of the world, we will restrict the margin of error to just a few dozen kilometers,” Kulak says.

“Over the next three years, we want to launch a dozen or so stations on different continents. This will enable us to perform complete monitoring of the planet’s storm activity irrespective of the nearest measuring station’s location. This system will not have any dead zones. Both small and large storms will be observable in real time.”

Global electric circuit
The storm monitoring system will also provide important data on the functioning of the global electric circuit. Locally, data on storm activity could be important to insurance companies, construction firms and any entities for which storm risk in a given area is important, Kulak says.

Storm maps will allow many hazards to be avoided. Once a storm information network is in place, the inventors of the system say they will sell the information it generates to meteorological centers specializing in global and continental weather forecasts. A few dozen organizations worldwide could be interested, according to Kulak.

Patent pending
The storm monitoring system developed by the Cracow researchers has a patent pending—largely thanks to the Jagiellonian University Center of Innovation, Technology Transfer and University Development (CITTRU), which encouraged the researchers to submit their invention to the Patent Office as a means of protecting their intellectual property.

Ewa Dereń
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