Lightning have always been a fascinating danger for humans, even when it comes to the mythical areas and beliefs – there are more than 50 ‘gods of thunder’. In the 18th century research in this area first started century when Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments about electricity in thunderstorms, with his kite experiment being the most famous. His work paved the way for this research around the world.
In the 19th century, spectrometry and photography became exciting new tools for this research, but it was replaced in the 1970s when electric and magnetic field measurements began as the new era in lightning research. Lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon that has been studied extensively, however many questions remain unanswered. Extensive research around the globe has resulted in answers to many of these questions and provided insights into the science.
South Africa made some significant contributions to the resreach and knowledge of research with big names like Schonland, Anderson, Proctor, Eriksson, Malan and Geldenhuys being internationally recognised for their contributions in this scientific area.
Initial studies was conducted at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which also operated a network of about 400 lightning flash counters. The information from these flash counters were used to produce the first flash density map of South Africa which could be used to get an idea of the distribution of lightning across the country and was used up until recently for lightning safety standards. The CSIR also operated a 60m high lightning research mast in Pretoria for 15 years from which direct measurements of lightning discharges could be made.
Eskom, the major power utility of South Africa, operated a network of six Lightning Position and Tracking System lightning sensors that was mainly used for the monitoring of power lines and the correct distribution of the infrastructure.
It was not until 2005 that the South African Weather Service installed a state of the art lightning detection network (SALDN) across the country, which enabled South Africa to detect cloud-to-ground strikes with great accuracy for the first time. This new detection network can detect 90% or more of all cloud-to-ground strikes and accurately position a stroke within 500 meters. This new network of sensors paved the way for new research in South Africa.