As every pilot knows, thunderstorm activity poses a serious hazard from aviation, not only from lightning strikes but also from associated phenomena like server icing, serve turbulence, wind shear and heavy precipitation like hail. To address this, in recent years the need to more tightly integrate remote-sensing data in order to optimize airline operations has increased. This is where atmospherics come in. Atmospherics is a technique used to identify areas of lightning and related thunderstorm activity.
Atmospherics allows forecasters to give early warning to individual airfields or air traffic control about an approaching thunderstorm and as a result, help pilots avoid their potentially hazardous conditions.
The most commonly used system in atmospherics is called ATD, which stands for Arrival Time Distance. It was established back in the early 1920s that when a lightning flash occurred, radio frequencies were emitted over a wide frequency band call atmospherics or spherics. You can often hear this as interference when listening to your radio. The ATD system works by detecting the vertical component of the electromagnetic field generated by a lightning discharge at a narrow band frequency in the range 10 to 14 kHz
An ATD system calculates the location of a remote lightning flash from the time difference of the atmospheric arriving at various pairs of detector stations. As a result, the origin of the lightning can then be calculated. Because this involves precise measurements of time, the system uses an atomic clock to synchronize all detection stations. The ATD system used by the MET office in the UK is fully automated and recent developments mean that lightning can be located at a rate of up to 8000 flashes per hour and to a much higher degree of accuracy than ever before. How precise? Even halfway around the world, the system is accurate to within a few kilometers. From the calculations, a map showing the lightning strikes can be produced. These maps are usually animated in steps through time to show the development and movement of thunderstorm activity, and are normally updated every 5 minutes.
Thunderstorms can feature lightning, high winds and heavy rain that can inhibit safe flying and even put the crew working on the ground to ready your flight in danger. Being able to identify remotely identify areas of thunderstorm activity in data-sparse regions means we can identify areas which are best to avoid flying into.
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