Space Station device monitored lightning in East Texas during last week’s tornadic storms

The International Space Station, pictured on November 21, 2022, as it flew 270 miles above the...
The International Space Station, pictured on November 21, 2022, as it flew 270 miles above the southern Pacific Ocean.(Source: NASA)
Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 9:05 PM CST
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PANOLA COUNTY, Texas (KLTV) - As powerful storms produced tornadoes in East Texas last week, a special device was tracking lightning data from the International Space Station, flying 250 miles overhead.

On Tuesday, December 13, a National Weather Service survey determined an EF2 tornado with peak winds of 115 mph touched down in northern Panola County around 3:30 p.m., traveling nine miles into Harrison County.

The storms damaged several homes and structures in East Texas, then produced another deadly tornado after crossing the state line into northern Louisiana hours later.

Researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are now looking at data collected around the same time from Lightning Imaging Sensor on the International Space Station (ISS-LIS).

The Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) is mounted to the International Space Station and has...
The Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) is mounted to the International Space Station and has provided data to researchers on the ground since 2017.(Source: NASA)

The LIS, mounted on the station in 2017, monitors total global lightning in both day and night. The device was manufactured as a spare for an earlier satellite-based system and sat on a shelf for 20 years before being deployed on the ISS. According to NASA, it detects the distribution and variability cloud-to-cloud, intra-cloud, and cloud-to-ground lightning.

In a newly-released map illustration, data collected by the LIS shows more than 100 flashes of lightning in East Texas, northwest Louisiana, and southwest Arkansas between 3:31 p.m. and 3:33 p.m.

This map shows lightning flashes detected by the LIS on the International Space Station between...
This map shows lightning flashes detected by the LIS on the International Space Station between 3:38 p.m. and 3:52 p.m. (CT) on December 13. "Size represents number of lightning flashes. Colors indicate flash brightness. The data are overlaid on a NOAA GOES image," NASA said.(Source: NASA)

According to NASA meteorologist Christopher Schultz, these jumps in the number of lightning flashes can indicate a strengthening storm and increasing potential for severe weather.

“The rate of change provides critical lead time that significant changes are occurring in the storm, providing time to warn those in the path.”

Schultz said they aim to use the LIS measurements to improve severe storm identification in the future.

“The events of the last few days provide examples of extreme convection that we can use as benchmarks in these analyses.”

The LIS device also makes it possible to conduct reliable daylight observation of lightning.

“Weak lightning signals that occur during the day are hard to detect because of background illumination,” a NASA website stated.

The instrument continues to provide valuable data, despite being intended to operate on a 2-4 year mission beginning in 2017.

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