Cloud-to-ground lightning data from the National Lightning Detection Network are used to create a warm season (May–September) lightning climatology for the northern Gulf of Mexico coast for the 14-yr period 1989–2002. Each day is placed into one of five flow regimes based on the orientation of the low-level flow with respect to the coastline. This determination is made using the vector mean 1000–700-hPa wind data at Lake Charles and Slidell, Louisiana. Flash densities are calculated for daily, hourly, and nocturnal periods.
Spatial patterns of composite 24-h and nocturnal flash density indicate that lightning decreases in an east-to-west direction over the region. Flash densities for the 24-h period are greatest over land near the coast, with relative maxima located near Houston, Texas; Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Mobile, Alabama. Flash densities during the nocturnal period are greatest over the coastal waters.
Lightning across the northern Gulf coast is closely related to the prevailing low-level synoptic flow, which controls the sea breeze, the dominant forcing mechanism during the warm season. Southwest flow, the most unstable and humid of the five regimes, exhibits the most flashes. In this case, sea-breeze-induced convection is located slightly inland from the coast. Northeast flow, the driest and most stable of the regimes, exhibits the least amount of lightning. The large-scale flow restricts the sea breeze to near the coastline.
Geographic features and local mesoscale circulations are found to affect lightning across the region. Geographic features include lakes, bays, marshes, swamps, and coastline orientations. Thermal circulations associated with these features interact with the main sea breeze to produce complex lightning patterns over the area.
Cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning causes injury and death, disrupts human activities, and damages property. Understanding the mesoscale processes that lead to convective development and its resulting lightning is necessary to produce better forecasts. Many studies have used data from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) (Cummins et al. 1998) to study lightning patterns across the contiguous United States. Analyses by Orville (1991, 1994), Orville and Silver (1997), Huffines and Orville (1999), Orville and Huffines (2001), Orville et al. (2002), and Zajac and Rutledge (2001) show that Florida, particularly central Florida, has the greatest lightning flash densities in the nation. The Gulf of Mexico coast from Houston, Texas, to Alabama exhibits secondary flash density maxima.
Due to its abundant lightning, Florida has been the focus of several regional lightning studies (e.g., Maier et al. 1984; Hodanish et al. 1997; Reap 1994). Lericos et al. (2002) recently created a 10-yr warm season lightning climatology for the Florida peninsula as a function of the position of the subtropical ridge axis. They also emphasized the role of coastal features in the distribution of lightning. These previously mentioned Florida lightning studies focused on the peninsula; however, Camp et al. (1998) examined lightning distributions in the panhandle region of northern Florida. This area has a more complex coastline and is influenced by only one large body of water, the Gulf of Mexico.
The northern Gulf coast is a hotbed of lightning activity, ranking second behind Florida (e.g., Orville and Huffines 2001). Steiger and Orville (2003) found regions of enhanced lightning over portions of southern Louisiana. However, the northern Gulf region has not been examined in detail.
The sea breeze is an important factor in producing thunderstorms in coastal regions, and many investigators have examined it in detail. Wexler (1946) and Simpson (1994) give complete descriptions of the sea breeze. Estoque (1962) was one of the first to model the sea breeze in two dimensions, while Pielke (1974) studied Florida’s sea breezes using an early three-dimensional model. Arritt (1993) used a two-dimensional numerical model to analyze how variations in the strength of the onshore–offshore environmental flow influenced the strength and inland penetration of the sea breeze. These studies have shown that offshore environmental flow produces a strong sea-breeze circulation whose leading edge remains near the coast. Deep convection, if it occurs, also is confined near the coastline. Onshore environmental flow produces a sea breeze with different characteristics—the thermal circulation is weaker but advances farther inland during the day. Any associated convection tends to be weaker and spread over a larger distance from the coast.
The effects of coastlines on the sea breeze were explored by McPherson (1970) using three-dimensional numerical modeling and by Gibson and Vonder Haar (1990) using satellite imagery. Florida’s sea breezes and their interactions with lake and river breezes have been studied by several researchers, including Blanchard and López (1985), López and Holle (1987), Wakimoto and Atkins (1994), and Laird et al. (1995).
Recent localized studies have described the occurrence of lightning near major cities. Watson and Holle (1996) and Livingston et al. (1996) examined flash patterns across the southeastern United States, particularly near Atlanta, Georgia, in preparation for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Enhanced warm season lightning activity was observed over and downwind of 16 major cities in the Midwest (Westcott 1995). Along the Gulf coast, Houston, Texas, has been an area of interest. Steiger et al. (2002) documented enhanced lightning over the city, most of which was due to large lightning events. Steiger and Orville (2003) noted enhanced lightning near Lake Charles, Louisiana. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the enhancement: sea-breeze effects, urban heat island effects, urban air pollution and its resulting modification of microphysical processes, and saltwater effects (Steiger et al. 2002; Orville et al. 2001; Steiger and Orville 2003).
The current study creates a detailed lightning climatology for the northern Gulf of Mexico coast (Fig. 1). This region of major lightning activity has received little previous attention. The area contains major contrasts in surface characteristics—forests, sandy beaches, extensive swamps, large lakes, and major cities. The thermal contrasts between these surfaces can produce circulations that interact with each other and with the main Gulf of Mexico sea breeze to form complex patterns of convection and lightning. We seek to answer the following questions: 1) What are the areal distributions of lightning as a function of the low-level synoptic flow? 2) How do the number of flashes and their spatial patterns vary as a function of time? 3) What are the physical mechanisms leading to the formation, movement, and timing of lightning patterns in the area?
2. Data and methodology
a. Lightning data
In complete operation since 1989, the NLDN, owned and operated by Vaisala, Inc., detects CG lightning flashes over the continental United States and immediate coastal waters. Specifics concerning network methodology and operations are described by Cummins et al. (1998). The network consists of 106 ground-based sensors across the United States. Although CG lightning flashes may consist of several return strokes, only the first stroke’s data are retained by the flash grouping algorithm. Data include the flash’s time, latitude, longitude, polarity, strength, and multiplicity.
The detection efficiency and location accuracy of the NLDN have improved greatly since its inception. During the early years of operation, detection efficiency ranged between 65% and 85%, while location accuracy was 8–16 km (Cummins et al. 1998). System upgrades in 1995 allowed a greater number of flashes to be detected, thereby improving the network’s capabilities. Since these upgrades, the NLDN has a detection efficiency of 80%–90% and is accurate to within 0.5 km (Cummins et al. 1998).
Following the suggestion of Cummins et al. (1998), we removed from the dataset weak positive flashes having strengths less than 10 kA. The dataset also was examined for duplicate flashes. When two or more flashes occurred within 10 km of one another within a 1-s interval, only the first flash’s data were retained, although their multiplicities were combined (Cummins et al. 1998). No corrections were applied to compensate for the variations in detection efficiencies and location accuracies across the study area during the 14-yr period. This produces a slight underestimation in the flash densities that follow.
We used data from the months of May–September 1989–2002. These warm season months were chosen because of their enhanced convection and because synoptic-scale forcing typically is weak, with little influence from midlatitude systems. Instead, mesoscale phenomena such as sea and lake breezes interact with their environments, surface features, and each other to produce complex patterns of convergence and convection.
Our study domain spanned 28°–32°N and 87°–96°W, encompassing the northern Gulf of Mexico coastline and adjacent waters (Fig. 1). As shown by Cummins et al. (1998), five NLDN sensors are located within the area. Individual flashes were counted within a 2.5 km × 2.5 km grid, corresponding to a 353 × 178 array of 6.25-km2 grid cells.
b. Radiosonde data
Radiosonde data were used to categorize each day of the period according to the prevailing low-level flow in the area. The vector mean wind in the 1000–700-hPa layer was computed each day using the 1200 UTC sounding. As shown in previous studies (López and Holle 1987; Camp et al. 1998; Lericos et al. 2002), the flow within this layer provides a good indication of sea-breeze and thunderstorm movement during the warm season. Two radiosonde sites were chosen to describe the low-level flow in the region—Lake Charles, Louisiana (LCH), in the western portion of the domain, and Slidell, Louisiana (SIL), in the domain’s eastern portion (Fig. 1).
Radiosonde data from 1989 to 1999 were available on the Radiosonde Data of North America CD-ROM distributed by the Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL) and the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) (FSL and NCDC 1999). Data for 2000 to 2002 were obtained from FSL’s Web site (http://www.fsl.noaa.gov/docs/data/fsl-data.html).
To investigate general lightning patterns in the northern Gulf coast region, all flashes were grouped together without any consideration of wind direction or time of day. Figure 2a shows a general increase in lightning from west to east. There are enhanced flash densities along the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline, suggesting a link to the sea breeze. However, the strongest maximum is in coastal Mississippi, near Biloxi, where flash densities exceed 8.0 flashes km−2 yr−1, with “year” defined as the warm season from May to September. Other maxima along the northern Gulf coast are located near major metropolitan and/or industrial areas. Areas near Houston, Texas; Lake Charles and New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama, exhibit flash density maxima of 5–8 flashes km−2 yr−1. (City locations and geographic features are shown in Fig. 1.) Houston’s maximum corresponds to the region of enhanced lightning described by Steiger et al. (2002) and Orville et al. (2001), while Steiger and Orville (2003) described the maximum near Lake Charles. A weaker maximum of 4–6 flashes km−2 yr−1 is found near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Each of these urban maxima may be caused or enhanced by several factors, including convergence due to sea, lake, and river breezes (e.g., Pielke 1974; Wakimoto and Atkins 1994; Laird et al. 1995); convex coastlines; urban heat island effects; and air pollution.
Reduced flash densities are found over the Atchafalaya Basin and Lake Pontchartrain as well as over the extreme northern and southern portions of the domain (Fig. 2a). The Atchafalaya Basin and much of coastal Louisiana is a region of swamps, marshes, and lakes. Their reduced flash densities are consistent with the findings of Hodanish et al. (1997) who noted that wetlands are associated with relatively small amounts of lightning due to weaker differential heating and resulting thermal circulations. Flash densities over Lake Pontchartrain are only 2–4 flashes km−2 yr−1. Previous research has shown that large lakes in south Florida are associated with subsidence and diminished lightning (e.g., Pielke 1974; Blanchard and López 1985).
The northern portion of the study region (Fig. 2a) has small flash densities because of its greater distance from the Gulf of Mexico. The sea breeze typically does not propagate this far inland (e.g., Arritt 1993), and moisture supplies are more limited. Over the extreme southern portion of the domain (the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico), the number of flashes is thought to be low because of three factors. First, the sea breeze, the dominant forcing mechanism, is a daytime inland phenomenon. Second, convection usually is weaker over water than over land, resulting in a smaller number of flashes (e.g., Orville and Henderson 1986). Third, since the NLDN sensors are located only over land, detection efficiency and location accuracy decrease with increasing distance from the coastline (Cummins et al. 1998).
To document the large-scale flow over the region during the warm season, reanalysis data were obtained from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction–National Center for Atmospheric Research (Kalnay et al. 1996). Specifically, 1000-hPa geopotential height data for each warm season day during the 14-yr period were averaged to create a composite analysis (Fig. 3). The result shows the subtropical ridge axis extending from central Florida into Louisiana. A trough is located over southern Alabama, with a relatively strong height gradient over southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.
The diurnal distribution of flashes for the composite (all days, all flows) period is shown in Fig. 4 for the entire study area in Fig. 1. Hourly values range from ∼172 000 at 0000 central daylight time (CDT = UTC – 5 h) to near 1.4 million at 1500 CDT. The afternoon maximum is due to sea-breeze-induced convection and to deep convection associated with other mesoscale forcing mechanisms whose effects are enhanced by afternoon heating. The smaller, secondary peak during the early morning (0700 CDT) probably is attributed to the land breeze, which is associated with early morning offshore convection.
To investigate the small number of flashes during the nighttime, flash densities were calculated for the period 2200–0700 CDT (Fig. 2b). Although flash densities for this period are much smaller than those of the 24-h composite (Fig. 2a), the decrease from east to west still is evident. Enhanced nighttime flash densities stretch from just offshore of Galveston Bay (southeast of Houston) to the eastern edge of the domain. The offshore nighttime flash densities may be enhanced by the warm, shallow waters in the region. Bathymetric data reveal that ocean depths less than 100 m extend from 100 to 200 km off the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi (information online at http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/ibcca/images/). High-resolution satellite-derived sea surface temperatures show these shallow areas to be relatively warm during the summer (information online at http://fermi.jhuapl.edu/avhrr/gm/averages/). The maximum of nighttime flashes is located offshore of coastal Mississippi. The reason for this maximum is uncertain; however, it may be due to a merger of land breezes from the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts. Specifically, the southward-moving land breeze from coastal Mississippi may be colliding with an eastward-moving land breeze from Louisiana, leading to enhanced convergence. Relatively small offshore flash densities occur just southwest of New Orleans. This relative minimum may be due to the convex coastline, which promotes localized divergence.
a. Individual flow regimes
The low-level synoptic flow plays a significant role in the formation and evolution of the sea breeze and its associated convection and lightning (e.g., Gentry and Moore 1954; Arritt 1993). Therefore, it is informative to classify each day according to its wind direction and to examine flash patterns as a function of the flow. For every warm season day during the 14-yr period, we calculated the vector mean wind in the 1000–700-hPa layer from the 1200 UTC radiosonde releases at Lake Charles and Slidell (LCH and SIL). Of the possible 2142 days during the period, soundings were available for 2069 days from LCH and 2108 days from SIL.
Figure 5 shows the distribution of the vector mean wind directions at LCH (in the western part of the domain) and SIL (in the eastern portion). The distribution from LCH (Fig. 5a) is unimodal, with the peak number of days having southerly flow. Flow with a northerly component occurs infrequently. Wind directions at SIL (Fig. 5b) are somewhat different from those at LCH, most likely due to variations in the generally east-to-west-oriented subtropical ridge axis. The SIL distribution is more uniform, and the peak is skewed slightly to the right of that at LCH. The greatest number of days occurs when the wind is from 225°. Days with southerly winds are the second most common, while northeast flow is the least frequent.
Based on the vector mean wind, each day was placed into one of five flow regimes. Since the flow can be weak, we employed a “calm flow” category to account for days when vector mean wind speeds were less than 2.5 m s−1. All directions were included in this regime. For days with stronger winds, the orientation of the coastline was used to define four additional flow regimes that consider the onshore and offshore winds that have been shown to greatly influence the strength and inland propagation of the sea breeze (e.g., Pielke 1974; Arritt 1993). Unlike Florida’s relatively straight coastlines, the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi have varying orientations. Using a different coastline orientation and thus different flow regimes for each portion of the region would have been impractical. Therefore, an average coastline orientation of 86° was assumed, and days with vector mean wind speeds greater than 2.5 m s−1 were categorized into one of four quadrants or flow regimes based on this orientation. These regimes have equal directional ranges (90°) and are denoted northeast (356°–86°), southeast (86°–176°), southwest (176°–266°), and northwest (266°–356°). Thus, two of the quadrants represent onshore flow (the southeast and southwest regimes), while the remaining two denote offshore flow (the northeast and northwest regimes). Due to the complex coastal orientation in the area (bays, capes, etc.), these general onshore–offshore designations do not represent each specific location in the study area. The distribution of days in each flow regime is shown in Fig. 5.
We initially were unsure whether sounding data from LCH and/or SIL should be used to classify the days according to their low-level flow. To investigate, the 1000–700-hPa vector mean wind directions from the 2041 days having data at both LCH and SIL were compared (Table 1). The southwest regime contains the greatest number of days at both SIL and LCH, while the northeast regime has the smallest number. With the exception of calm flow, approximately 66% of days at the two locations are in the same category, and of the remaining days, a large portion are in an adjacent category. However, there are some days when the low-level flow at the two stations is in opposite quadrants. These differences suggested that vector mean winds from both radiosonde sites should be used to classify individual days. Therefore, we divided the study area into eastern and western zones of equal area. Winds at LCH are assumed to represent the western half of the region (91.5°–96.0°W), with sounding data from SIL representing winds in the eastern half (87.0°–91.5°W). The directional ranges for each regime were described previously (356°–86°, etc).
Figure 6 relates the daily flash count across each half of the region to the mean low-level wind direction for that day. We also calculated statistical parameters from the daily lightning and radiosonde data (Tables 2 and 3). The category “all days” describes lightning characteristics as a whole, regardless of the vector mean wind, and is analogous to the composite case in Fig. 2.
Figure 6a and Table 2 are based on wind data from LCH and lightning data from the western half of the domain (91.5°–96.0°W). Radiosonde data were available for 2069 days out of a possible 2142, with 2045 days classified into one of the flow regimes. The remaining days could not be classified because of problematic soundings, although they were included in the all-days category. Results show that the number of days and lightning flashes over the western half of the domain vary widely between flow regimes. The southwest category has the largest number of days (840) and flashes (2 999 296). In fact, the maximum number of flashes on a single day (44 846) occurs during southwesterly flow. Conversely, the northeast and northwest regimes have the smallest number of days and flashes (approximately 225 days and 675 000 flashes). Detailed discussions about each regime are provided in later sections.
Figure 6b and Table 3 show results for the eastern half of the domain (87.0°–91.5°W). Two thousand ninety-five days out of the possible 2108 were classified into one of the five flow regimes. The southwest regime again has the largest number of days and flashes (719 and 2 946 218, respectively), while northeast flow ranks last among the regimes with only 245 days and 785 577 flashes.
Figure 2a shows a general decrease in flash density from east to west, and this observation is confirmed in Tables 2 and 3. Although the eastern and western domains have equal areas, considerably more flashes occur in the eastern region (8 239 874) than the western portion (6 639 535). The eastern region also has more days with lightning (1874 versus 1736) and a greater median number of flashes per day (1440 versus 918). These contrasts do not appear to result from the relatively minor differences in low-level environmental wind in the two regions (Fig. 5). After examining the thermodynamics of each region, we found that the convective available potential energy (CAPE) for the western area actually is greater than in the east where more lightning occurs (Table 4). Surface data revealed that LCH is slightly warmer and more humid than SIL, contributing to its greater CAPE. Precipitable water values in the two areas generally are similar (Table 4), except for the northwest flow regime where the western region is somewhat drier (1.46 versus 1.61 in.). Thus, the thermodynamics of the western and eastern regions does not appear to explain their differing flash densities.
We believe that the east–west contrast in lightning mostly is due to the nature of the land–sea interface. Specifically, the western two-thirds of the domain contains extensive regions of swamps and marshes that extend inland 50 to ∼100 km. Local climatic data reveal that temperatures in this broad zone are intermediate to those farther inland and over the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the land–sea temperature gradient is reduced, as is the strength of the resulting sea-breeze circulation. Conversely, coastal Mississippi and Alabama exhibit a more sharply defined coastline. Although some swamps are present, they are relatively narrow. The result is a stronger land–sea temperature gradient that produces a better-defined sea breeze. The further reduction in flash densities over the upper Texas coast (Fig. 2a) likely is due to their often experiencing relatively dry southwesterly flow from south Texas and Mexico. However, that area is near the western boundary of our domain and was not examined in detail.
b. Calm flow
The calm (light wind) regime consists of days when the 1000–700-hPa vector mean wind speed is less than 2.5 m s−1, regardless of wind direction. Three hundred three (352) days were classified as calm in the western (eastern) portions of the domain (Tables 2 and 3). Of these days, 85% (91%) contain lightning in the western (eastern) portion.
The large percentage of days with lightning is consistent with conducive atmospheric conditions (Table 4). Both halves of the domain are characterized by large K-index values, CAPE, and precipitable water. Thus, convection is favored because of moist, unstable conditions.
In the western portion of the study area (Table 2), calm flow days have the greatest mean and median flashes per day of all five regimes (3742 and 1424, respectively). Calm flow in the west is most common during July and least common in May and June (Table 5) when midlatitude synoptic systems may increase low-level wind speeds. Across the eastern section, calm flow occurs most often in August and least often during May (Table 6). Calm flow in the east exhibits the second greatest mean and median flashes per day (4472 and 1889, respectively) (Table 3). In summary, calm (light wind) days occur frequently and are large lightning producers.
Figure 7a shows the mean 1000-hPa geopotential height analysis for days having calm flow. Although the figure is based on the LCH flow regimes, very similar analyses were obtained for the SIL regimes (not shown). The analysis shows the synoptic pattern that typically is associated with the calm regime. Specifically, high pressure associated with the subtropical ridge dominates the southeastern United States, with the ridge axis extending across Florida into east Texas. The weak height gradient over the Gulf coast is indicative of the light winds over Louisiana and Mississippi.
The 24-h composite flash density map for calm flow is shown in Fig. 8a. To facilitate comparisons between regimes, flash densities have been normalized as in Lericos et al. (2002). That is, flash counts for each grid cell were divided by the area of the cell and the number of days in the particular flow regime, giving units of flashes km−2 (regime day)−1. The flash density map for calm flow reveals an active pattern that is similar to the all-days composite shown in Fig. 2a. Maxima are located in similar areas, with most near metropolitan centers. This similarity occurs because only vector mean wind speed is considered when classifying days as calm; therefore, all wind directions are included. Density values are smaller than the all-days category because they were normalized per regime day rather than per entire warm season.
There are several regions of diminished flash densities during calm (light wind) flow (Fig. 8a). Minima are found over large bodies of water and in regions of marshes and swamps. Thus, Galveston Bay (southeast of Houston), the Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Pontchartrain, and Mobile Bay exhibit flash densities between 0.0 and 0.04 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1. Flash density patterns in the northern part of the study area, well inland from the coast, are rather disorganized; only several small maxima of 0.04–0.06 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1 are evident. Density patterns in this area at hourly intervals (not shown) do not reveal an organized progression. Thus, subtle forcing mechanisms may be responsible for that convection.
Enhanced flash densities in the coastal areas (Fig. 8a) are in a broken band that parallels the coastline. Hourly flash density maps indicate that this band is caused by the sea breeze penetrating inland only slightly. Large-scale winds less than 2.5 m s−1 are too weak to move the sea breeze farther inland. The strongest density maximum within the study area [greater than 0.08 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1] is located in coastal Mississippi. A closer view of this maximum is shown in a series of hourly maps in Fig. 9. Convection develops just west of Mobile Bay at 1200 CDT (Fig. 9b). At 1300 CDT (Fig. 9c), the greatest flashes are farther west and centered around a small bay. However, by 1400 CDT (Fig. 9d), convection is widespread and indicative of the larger-scale sea breeze. Finally, by 1500 CDT, the flash density peaks, with a swath of large values extending from Slidell to Mobile (Fig. 9e). This peak corresponds to the maximum in cloudiness and deep convection found by Gibson and Vonder Haar (1990).
It is clear that complex and sometimes subtle forcing mechanisms are important in producing the flash patterns that are observed during calm flow (Figs. 8a and 9). One important mesoscale forcing mechanism is the large-scale sea breeze, and a second is enhanced convergence/divergence due to lakes and the shape of the coastline. The flash density maximum near Biloxi also may be influenced by urban factors such as air pollution and heat island effects (e.g., Orville et al. 2001; Steiger et al. 2002; Westcott 1995). Additional, weaker maxima (Fig. 8a) are noted in the vicinity of other large cities (i.e., Lake Charles and New Orleans).
Diurnal flash distributions for calm (light wind) conditions (Fig. 10) are similar in the western and eastern portions of the domain. The western half’s peak of ∼150 000 (Fig. 10a) occurs at 1700 CDT, one hour later than the peak of the eastern half (∼200 000 flashes, Fig. 10b) at 1600 CDT. Both distributions exhibit smaller, secondary peaks between 0700–0900 CDT. Early morning offshore convection is the main cause for these secondary peaks.
c. Northeast flow
Days when the 1000–700-hPa vector mean wind direction is between 356° and 86° compose the northeast flow category. This regime has the fewest number of days (218 and 245) and flashes (489 840 and 785 577) in both halves of the domain (Tables 2 and 3). In the western segment, only 70% of the 218 flow days have lightning. The mean, median, and maximum flashes per day also are the smallest of all five regimes. Within the eastern sector, a greater percentage of days (82% of the 245 flow days) produces lightning (Table 3). Although it is interesting that the northeast regime exhibits the greatest number of flashes on a single day in the eastern portion (51 327), this maximum is due to an individual event and is not a general characteristic of the regime. Convection is less likely during northeast flow because the atmosphere is relatively dry and stable. In fact, values of the K index, CAPE, and precipitable water for both halves of the domain are the smallest of all flow categories (Table 4).
The subtropical ridge does not influence the domain on days with northeast flow. Instead, strong high pressure over Illinois and low pressure over the Yucatan Peninsula are major factors (Fig. 7b). A ridge axis extends into southeast Texas, while an inverted trough, possibly associated with frontal boundaries, extends from the eastern Gulf of Mexico to the coastal regions of the mid-Atlantic states. Northeast flow occurs most frequently during September (Tables 5 and 6) since post–cold frontal high pressure systems are more common during this month than during the traditional summer months. These fronts bring relatively dry, stable air into the region (Table 4).
Magnitudes and patterns of flash density differ considerably over the western and eastern halves of the domain during northeast flow (Fig. 8b). Values in the western half are relatively small. The largest densities [0.03–0.06 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1], in a broken band from Houston to Lake Charles, are associated with the sea breeze but are farther inland and weaker than expected. Since the coastal portions of southwest Louisiana consist of marshes, swamps, and lakes, the thermal circulation constituting the sea breeze may be farther inland where the stronger land–water temperature gradients are located. There is little lightning over the coastal waters of the western portion.
Flash densities across the eastern half of the domain are greater in magnitude and areal coverage (Fig. 8b). Two areas of enhanced values over land are evident—along the Mississippi coastline and along the Louisiana coast south of New Orleans. Thunderstorms remain near the coasts because the northward advance of the sea breeze is limited by the large-scale northeasterly winds. Enhanced densities also are found over the coastal waters south and southwest of New Orleans. Hourly flash density maps (not shown) indicate that this lightning is associated with early morning offshore convection. Additionally, northeast flow produces a density minimum southwest of Lake Pontchartrain due to the advection of cooler and more stable air into the region. Reduced densities also are noted over the Atchafalaya Basin. Lightning activity in the western section peaks at 1700 CDT (Fig. 10a) but reaches a maximum 1 h earlier at 1600 CDT in the eastern portion (Fig. 10b).
d. Southeast flow
The southeast flow regime contains days having vector mean wind directions between 86° and 176°. The typical synoptic situation for these days (Fig. 7c) contains a closed high pressure over North Carolina, with the subtropical ridge axis extending from the Atlantic Ocean across the Carolinas to northern Louisiana. The number of flow days and total number of flashes during the 14-yr period are similar for the two halves of the domain (Tables 2 and 3), with the number of flow days ranking second among the five regimes.
Lightning occurs on many southeasterly flow days, with 89% (92%) producing lightning in the western (eastern) portions (Tables 2 and 3). However, in the eastern half, southeast flow exhibits the smallest mean and second smallest median flashes per day (Table 3). In the western section, the median is somewhat greater, ranking third out of the five flow categories (Table 2). The stability and moisture content of southeast flow are intermediate to those of the other flow regimes (Table 4). To summarize, southeast flow produces a large percentage of lightning days, but those days do not yield great amounts of lightning.
There is a diffuse lightning pattern across the region during southeast flow (Fig. 8c). The sea breeze is weak and advances onshore quickly, often without producing significant convection. However, a weak, broken band of enhanced densities does stretch from Houston to Mobile, slightly inland from the coast, apparently due to the weak sea breeze. An area of marginally enhanced flash densities [only 0.03–0.06 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1] also extends from Baton Rouge northward into Mississippi. This area may result from interactions between small-scale circulations (due to lakes, rivers, etc.) and the low-level flow, or urban influences (i.e., heat island effects, industrial pollution, etc.). Finally, relative flash density minima are located over and immediately northwest of Lake Pontchartrain and over the Atchafalaya Basin.
e. Southwest flow
The southwest flow regime consists of days with vector mean 1000–700-hPa wind directions between 176° and 266°. The subtropical ridge axis on these days (Fig. 7d) typically extends from the Atlantic Ocean to southern Louisiana, with a broad low pressure system over western Texas and Oklahoma. May, June, and July contain the most southwest flow days, while September has a definite minimum (Tables 5 and 6).
Southwest flow is the most unstable, most frequent, and most active of all categories. In both halves of the study area, the number of days (840 and 719) and flashes (2 999 296 and 2 946 218) far exceed those of the other categories (Tables 2 and 3). Eighty-five percent (90%) of the days have lightning in the western (eastern) portions. Sounding parameters explain the propensity for convection during southwest flow (Table 4), with values of CAPE in both halves of the area being the greatest of all regimes. The K-index and precipitable water values also are relatively large.
The flash density pattern in Fig. 8d has similarities to that of the composite case (Fig. 2a). There is an east-to-west decrease in densities, and maxima are located near major population centers. In the western half of the region, areas of enhanced flash density [0.04–0.06 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1] are over Houston and Lake Charles. As previously discussed, the swampy nature of the western coastal regions likely causes weaker sea-breeze circulations that take longer to form, thereby producing less convection and lightning. Also, compared to other flow regimes, the southwest category has relatively little offshore activity.
Flash densities across the eastern portion of the region are greater than farther west (Fig. 8d). Maxima of 0.05–0.08 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1 are over New Orleans, in coastal Mississippi, and in a north–south line extending northward from Mobile. The Mississippi and Alabama maxima are consistent with Medlin and Croft (1998) who noted that southwesterly low-level flow produced the greatest radar echo frequencies in those areas. The thermal circulation that develops between the warm, shallow water and the land along the sharply defined coastline forms, strengthens, and progresses inland during the morning. Convection typically begins near the time of maximum heating and instability. The convection is enhanced by interactions between the sea breeze and local circulations (i.e., bay breezes) and topography. Medlin and Croft (1998) also showed a maximum of convection on the north and northwest sides of Mobile Bay during southwesterly flow. They stated that convergence in this region is enhanced by interactions between the low-level flow and locally higher elevations. Their convective maximum corresponds to the maximum in flash densities seen in Fig. 8d.
The flash density maximum seen near New Orleans in the composite case (Fig. 2a) is especially prominent during southwest flow (Fig. 8d). New Orleans is located along the southern edge of Lake Pontchartrain and has the largest area and population of the cities along the northern Gulf coast. Hourly analyses reveal that enhanced flash densities during southwest flow first appear over New Orleans at 1100 CDT (Fig. 11a). Values then increase over New Orleans and the other sides of Lake Pontchartrain (Figs. 11b and 11c) between 1200 and 1300 CDT. These areas of enhanced activity probably are due to locally increased convergence from the lake breeze and its interaction with the southwest flow. The sea breeze likely is a factor as well, although it is poorly defined in the hourly maps. By 1400 CDT (Fig. 11d), values are greatest over New Orleans [0.009–0.015 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1]. Three flows appear to anchor this maximum over the city: the sea breeze, the lake breeze, and the large-scale flow. Due to its large population, there is the potential for urban lightning enhancement. However, calculation of the total flash count in the immediate New Orleans area (not shown) reveals values that are similar to those of smaller cities (Baton Rouge and Lake Charles). This may be due to New Orleans’s proximity to Lake Pontchartrain, which gives the atmosphere a relatively maritime (stable) flavor. This hypothesis is consistent with the results of Westcott (1995) who noted weaker urban lightning enhancements in cities adjacent to major lakes.
The hourly distribution of flash counts for the western half (Fig. 10a) peaks at 1500 CDT, with a secondary maximum between 0600 and 0800 CDT. Analyses of hourly flash density maps (not shown) reveal that this early morning lightning is associated with nearshore convection. As with the previous regimes, the distribution for the eastern portion (Fig. 10b) peaks 1 h earlier than the western distribution.
f. Northwest flow
Days with 1000–700-hPa vector mean wind directions between 266° and 356° are classified in the northwest flow regime. Northwest flow is a prodigious lightning producer, although the statistics vary considerably between the two halves of the region. The eastern portion (Table 3) has approximately 50% more days and double the number of flashes of the western portion (Table 2). Specifically, there are only 234 days with 866 246 flashes in the western portion, with 80% of the days producing lightning. On the other hand, the eastern section has 358 days and 1 788 237 flashes (Table 3), with a larger percentage (85%) of days producing lightning. In addition, of all the directional regimes, northwest flow has the second greatest (greatest) mean flashes per day [3 702 (4 995)] for the western (eastern) portion, although median rankings are somewhat lower. This prolific amount of lightning also is indicated by the daily flash counts in Fig. 6. Twelve days in the western portion (Fig. 6a) and 23 in the eastern half (Fig. 6b) exceed 20 000 flashes per day.
Days with northwesterly flow are not governed by the subtropical ridge (Fig. 7e). Instead, they are influenced by midlatitude synoptic systems, with a trough of low pressure, most likely associated with individual wave cyclones, located over Alabama and Georgia. Northwest flow is most common during May and least common during July (western portion) and September (eastern portion) (Tables 5 and 6). Due to its postfrontal nature, northwest flow is not as moist and unstable as its southerly counterpart (southwest flow) (Table 4). Conversely, it is not as dry and stable as its easterly counterpart (northeast flow).
The flash density map for northwest flow (Fig. 8e) shows very active regions of lightning. Sea-breeze-induced maxima are confined to the coastline by the large-scale flow. The greatest densities, exceeding 0.08 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1, extend from Biloxi to Mobile. In addition, there is considerable lightning offshore. Hourly maps (not shown) reveal that the offshore convection occurs during the night and early morning hours. Relative minima are noted over Lake Pontchartrain and its shadow region, as well as over the Atchafalaya Basin.
The enhanced flash densities in coastal Mississippi and Alabama are especially well defined during northwest flow (Fig. 8e). As noted earlier, the land–sea interface is sharply defined, likely producing strong thermal circulations compared to areas farther west. Hourly flash density maps first indicate inland penetration of the sea breeze at 1300 CDT (Fig. 12b). Flash densities associated with the sea-breeze-related convection quickly intensify, reaching peak values of 0.015–0.024 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1 at 1400 CDT (Fig. 12c). From 1500 to 1600 CDT (Figs. 12d and 12e), values across coastal Mississippi and Alabama still are quite large. The band of enhanced densities never advances far inland since the sea breeze is restrained by the opposing large-scale flow. Since the Biloxi area is growing rapidly, localized urban and industrial effects likely are becoming increasingly important, in addition to influences of sea-breeze circulations and the large-scale flow.
The evolution of flash densities near Baton Rouge during northwest flow also reveals interactions between several circulation systems. Baton Rouge is located relatively far inland of the Gulf of Mexico and is not adjacent to any large bodies of water. The only significant geographic feature is the Mississippi River, which flows along the city’s western side. Baton Rouge is a major industrial area, with many petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River.
Hourly flash densities in the Baton Rouge area during northwest flow are given in Fig. 13. At 1500 CDT (Fig. 13a), values are greatest on the northwest side of Lake Pontchartrain (located in the lower-right corner). Convergence in this region is enhanced by interactions between lake breezes from Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas (just west of Lake Pontchartrain) and the large-scale northwesterly flow. Flash densities over Baton Rouge are minimal at this time. By 1600 CDT, flash densities increase around Lake Pontchartrain and near Baton Rouge (Fig. 13b). The area of enhanced flash densities continues to strengthen and increase, and by 1800 CDT, a maximum of 0.018–0.021 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1 is located over the city (Fig. 13d). Enhanced convergence from outflow boundaries of convection near Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain, as well as urban enhancements, may be responsible for these large flash densities. During the next hour, densities decrease dramatically over the area, and by 1900 CDT, values in the area are only ∼0.0–0.009 flashes km−2 (regime day)−1 (Fig. 13e). To summarize, lake and urban processes appear to largely influence and enhance lightning in the Baton Rouge area. The sea breeze does not appear to be a significant factor.
Hourly flash counts for the two halves of the domain differ considerably from one another (Fig. 10). Each of the previously discussed regime distributions peaked during midafternoon and exhibited an overnight minimum. The hourly distribution for northwest flow in the eastern section (Fig. 10b) follows this trend. The peak (169 546) occurs at 1500 CDT, while a secondary peak (69 709) occurs at 0900 CDT. This smaller peak corresponds to the offshore lightning activity discussed earlier. However, the distribution for northwest flow in the western portion of the area differs from the others. It is more uniform, varying by only ∼46 000 flashes between maximum and minimum values (Fig. 10a). The peak flash count of 68 370 occurs at 1700 CDT and the minimum of 22 264 at 1200 CDT, a time when flash counts normally are increasing to the afternoon peak.
The results have shown that warm season lightning over the northern Gulf of Mexico coast is closely related to environmental and geographical features in the region. The direction of the large-scale environmental flow greatly influences the humidity and stability of the area and, therefore, the amount of convection and lightning that occur. Days with southwest flow off the Gulf of Mexico are the most humid and unstable of the four directional regimes, and these days exhibit the greatest median number of flashes per day. Conversely, days with northeast flow from the continent produce the smallest median number of flashes per day since this air is the driest and most stable. These results are consistent with those of Camp et al. (1998) and Fuelberg and Biggar (1994) who studied lightning patterns and the preconvective environment, respectively, of the nearby Florida panhandle. Days with southeasterly or northwesterly flow produce intermediate median numbers of flashes, consistent with their intermediate values of humidity and stability.
The sea breeze is the dominant forcing mechanism for warm season deep convection over the northern Gulf coast, with numerical modeling (e.g., Pielke 1974; Arritt 1993) showing that the large-scale flow affects both the strength and inland penetration of the sea breeze. Current findings are consistent with those modeling results. Days with mean low-level vector wind speeds less than 2.5 m s−1 (calm days) produce large numbers of flashes because the sea breeze and its associated convection do not propagate far inland. Although offshore flow has been shown to produce a strong sea breeze that remains near the coastline (e.g., Pielke 1974; Arritt 1993), the relative dryness and stability of the environment appear to limit the amount of convection and lightning along the northern Gulf coast. Conversely, onshore flow has been associated with relatively weak sea breezes that advance far inland. However, current results suggest that the relatively large instability and humidity of the advancing maritime air counters the weaker sea breeze to produce large flash counts. Thus, the large-scale flow affects both the thermodynamics and degree of forcing that produce convection and lightning, with these two influences possibly counteracting each other.
The nature of the underlying land surface is observed to influence the strength of the land–sea temperature gradient and the resulting sea-breeze circulation. Greatest flash densities in our study area are located along coastal Alabama and Mississippi where the land–sea interface is sharply defined, yielding a strong horizontal temperature gradient and sea-breeze circulation. Conversely, the swampy nature of coastal Louisiana yields a weaker land–sea temperature gradient, weaker sea-breeze forcing, and smaller flash densities. Other geographic features that create or modify mesoscale circulations that produce deep convection include lakes (e.g., Lake Pontchartrain), large rivers (e.g., the Mississippi and Atchafalaya), and complex-shaped coastlines (e.g., Mobile Bay). Finally, flash density maxima are observed near the major industrial centers of Houston, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. These flash enhancements may be due to the thermal circulations described above, together with local effects such as urban heat islands or altered cloud microphysical processes due to air pollution (e.g., Steiger and Orville 2003).
It is clear that the complex flash density patterns observed along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast are due to interactions between the large-scale flow and a variety of sometimes subtle mesoscale circulations. A great deal of additional data and study will be required to unravel these complex interactions.
4. Summary and conclusions
Cloud-to-ground lightning data from the National Lightning Detection Network have been used to determine lightning patterns along the northern Gulf coast and to study their relation to mesoscale forcing mechanisms. Although this area contains the second greatest flash densities in the nation, it has received little previous attention. The study period was the warm seasons (May–September) of the 14-yr period 1989–2002. Radiosonde data from Lake Charles and Slidell, Louisiana, were used to calculate the 1000–700-hPa vector mean wind each day. Based on that wind, the day was placed into one of five flow regimes. Four of the regimes were based on the wind components onshore or offshore of the coastline. The fifth regime, calm flow, included days when the mean low-level flow was less than 2.5 m s−1, regardless of direction. Flash densities were calculated on a 2.5 km × 2.5 km grid and composited for each flow regime at hourly, daily, and nocturnal increments.
Results for the “all days, all flows” case indicated that the northern Gulf coast is a very active lightning region. Flash densities were found to decrease in an east-to-west direction from Alabama to western Louisiana, probably due to the swampy nature of coastal Louisiana that reduces the horizontal temperature gradient producing the sea breeze. Complex patterns of smaller-scale maximum and minimum flash density were superimposed on the larger-scale trend. Greatest densities were located near Biloxi, Mississippi, with other relative maxima near Houston, Texas; Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama. During the nocturnal period (2200–0700 CDT), flash densities were greatest over the coastal waters, decreasing from east to west. The nocturnal lightning was enhanced by the warm shallow Gulf of Mexico waters, by land breezes, and by the advection of land-forming convection onto the water.
Results showed the impacts of geographic features on flash density patterns. The numerous lakes, bays, marshes, and swamps of the region, as well as the shape of the coastline, influenced density magnitudes. Convex-shaped coastlines, such as Mobile Bay, enhanced lightning development, as evidenced by the maximum in that area. Conversely, concave coastlines were associated with nearby diminished flash densities. Large lakes, especially Lake Pontchartrain, suppressed convection due to cooler, more stable air over them. The large-scale flow also advected this air downstream of the lake, resulting in a smaller number of flashes, that is, a lake shadow. Enhanced lightning in other areas near lakes likely was due to lake breezes interacting with other thermal circulations. Marshes and swamps also retarded lightning activity, especially in the coastal region of western Louisiana. Temperature contrasts between land and water were smaller in that area, producing weaker thermal circulations and weaker forcing for convection.
Flash patterns along the northern Gulf coast were found to depend greatly on the low-level flow. This relation occurs because the large-scale flow regulates the strength and movement of the sea breeze, the dominant warm season forcing mechanism for convection. The calm, southwest, and northwest flow regimes exhibited the largest flash densities, while northeast and southeast flow produced the smallest values. Many of the regimes exhibited flash density maxima near the aforementioned urban areas, as well as minima over Lake Pontchartrain and the Atchafalaya Basin.
Selected sounding parameters were examined for each flow regime using sounding data from the Lake Charles and Slidell radiosonde sites. There were clear differences in atmospheric moisture and stability between flow categories. Days with calm or southwest flow were the most humid and unstable. Consequently, they had the greatest mean and median flashes of all five regimes. Conversely, northeast flow days were the driest and most stable, producing the least amount of lightning. The northwest and southeast flow days were intermediate in terms of stability, humidity, and the median number of flashes per day. Northwest flow occurs most often during May and is typically a postfrontal scenario, not associated with the subtropical ridge.
Diurnal distributions revealed the distinct cyclic nature of lightning in the region. Flash counts were smallest during the overnight period. During the early morning hours, the number of flashes began to increase, reaching a maximum that corresponded to the time of maximum heating and instability. Southwesterly flow had the most flashes and peaked earliest in the afternoon. On the other hand, the drier and more stable northeasterly flow had the smallest number of flashes and was one of the last flow regimes to reach its afternoon peak. Flash counts in the western half of the study region generally peaked 1 h later than those in the eastern half. This may due to the weaker western thermal circulations taking slightly longer to mature.
Flash density maxima were observed near Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile. These urban maxima resulted from interactions between the prevailing synoptic flow and one or more smaller-scale thermal circulations such as sea and lake breezes that are influenced by the presence of marshes and swamps as well as convex or concave coastlines. Enhanced frictional convergence, heat island effects, and altered cloud microphysics due to air pollution also are believed to contribute to the lightning enhancements seen in these areas.
This study has described complicated flash density patterns along the northern Gulf coast and has highlighted complex interactions between the synoptic-scale flow and various mesoscale forcing mechanisms that appear to produce this convection and lightning. Much additional study will be necessary to fully understand the causes for the flash density patterns. High-resolution numerical modeling will be especially important to fully understand the interplay between the complex processes occurring in the region during the warm season that produce deep convection.
We appreciate the assistance of Todd Lericos (NWS Spokane) who answered many questions about computing procedures. Similarly, Ron Holle of Vaisala Inc. answered questions about the NLDN data. Kent Kuyper (NWS Lake Charles) provided insights into the meteorology of the study area. Chris Kiley at the Florida State University kindly assisted with figure preparation.
This research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET) under Grant S00-19127 and by the NOAA CSTAR program through Grant NA03NWS4680018.
* Current affiliation: NOAA/National Weather Service Forecast Office, Birmingham, Alabama
Corresponding author address: Henry E. Fuelberg, Dept. of Meteorology, The Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-4520. Email: email@example.com