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Crowdsourcing Lightning Strikes Actually Works Pretty Well

A Dusseldorf-based network has linked more than 800 low-priced lightning detectors around the globe.

Ghastly afraid of lightning? Then try loading up this map of almost real-time strikes, and drive from place to place in a desperate attempt to stay out of electrical-discharge zones (though you'll probably wind up crashed into a storefront instead).

This enthralling cartography of the crackling skies was made by the people behind Blitzortung, an ambitious and geographically sprawling attempt to crowdsource foul weather. Years back, the Dusseldorf-based network began assisting the meteorologically curious in setting up relatively low-priced lightning detectors, which then feed data back to central servers. With more than 800 participants now hailing from the U.K. to Mexico to New Zealand and beyond, Blitzortung has in effect created a planetary picture of where things are getting zapped, with an expanding circle on its maps marking the spot of a seconds-old bolt.

Each strike is color-coded to show when it happened, with white being newest (within 20 minutes) and red oldest (at least two hours ago). The project's accuracy is not perfect—the seeming lack of lightning in Africa is a result of not enough participants, for instance—and there is a weird issue that can screw up a detector's readings if you own a robotic lawnmower. But it seems robust enough to give a good indication of ongoing storms. Here's the scene yesterday evening, with lines leading to detectors that registered a strike:


That jibes with storm fronts moving over Texas and Appalachia at the time, as seen in this NOAA satellite image:


For an even better experience, Blitzortung operates a sister site called Lightning Maps with a Google basemap and the ability to zoom way in. Here's the area east of Detroit getting pounded with Thor's hammer last evening:

Lightning Maps

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.