Convective Structure of Hurricanes as Revealed by Lightning Locations

John Molinari Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York

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Paul Moore Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York

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Vincent Idone Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York

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Abstract

Cloud-to-ground lightning flash locations were examined for nine Atlantic basin hurricanes using data from the National Lightning Detection Network. A common radial distribution in ground flash density was evident: a weak maximum in the eyewall region, a clear minimum 80–100 km outside the eyewall, and a strong maximum in the vicinity of outer rainbands (210–290-km radius). These results are consistent with the authors’ previous study of Hurricane Andrew. None of the storms showed this characteristic radial structure during prehurricane stages.

The results support the division of precipitation in the hurricane into three distinct regimes. The eyewall is a unique phenomenon but shares some attributes with deep, weakly electrified oceanic monsoonal convection. The region outside the eyewall and under the central dense overcast has characteristics of the trailing stratiform region of mesoscale convective systems, including a relatively high fraction of positive polarity flashes. The outer bands, with mean maximum flash density at the 250-km radius, contain the vast majority of ground flashes in the storms.

Eyewall lightning, defined as that within 40 km of the center, was examined for four moderate-to-strong hurricanes. Such lightning occurred episodically during hurricane stage, with 93% of hourly intervals containing no detected flashes. Eyewall lightning outbreaks over water always occurred at the beginning of or during times of intensification, but often were indicative of the imminent end of deepening. It is proposed that the existence of such inner core lightning might reveal the presence of an eyewall cycle. For the one storm with available aircraft reconnaissance data, eyewall cycles were reliably identified by the occurrence of inner core lightning, and inner core lightning appeared only during such cycles. Suggestions are made as to how eyewall flashes in existing hurricanes might be used to help predict hurricane intensity change.

Corresponding author address: Dr. John Molinari, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, SUNY—Albany, Albany, NY 12222.

Email: molinari@atmos.albany.edu

Abstract

Cloud-to-ground lightning flash locations were examined for nine Atlantic basin hurricanes using data from the National Lightning Detection Network. A common radial distribution in ground flash density was evident: a weak maximum in the eyewall region, a clear minimum 80–100 km outside the eyewall, and a strong maximum in the vicinity of outer rainbands (210–290-km radius). These results are consistent with the authors’ previous study of Hurricane Andrew. None of the storms showed this characteristic radial structure during prehurricane stages.

The results support the division of precipitation in the hurricane into three distinct regimes. The eyewall is a unique phenomenon but shares some attributes with deep, weakly electrified oceanic monsoonal convection. The region outside the eyewall and under the central dense overcast has characteristics of the trailing stratiform region of mesoscale convective systems, including a relatively high fraction of positive polarity flashes. The outer bands, with mean maximum flash density at the 250-km radius, contain the vast majority of ground flashes in the storms.

Eyewall lightning, defined as that within 40 km of the center, was examined for four moderate-to-strong hurricanes. Such lightning occurred episodically during hurricane stage, with 93% of hourly intervals containing no detected flashes. Eyewall lightning outbreaks over water always occurred at the beginning of or during times of intensification, but often were indicative of the imminent end of deepening. It is proposed that the existence of such inner core lightning might reveal the presence of an eyewall cycle. For the one storm with available aircraft reconnaissance data, eyewall cycles were reliably identified by the occurrence of inner core lightning, and inner core lightning appeared only during such cycles. Suggestions are made as to how eyewall flashes in existing hurricanes might be used to help predict hurricane intensity change.

Corresponding author address: Dr. John Molinari, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, SUNY—Albany, Albany, NY 12222.

Email: molinari@atmos.albany.edu

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