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Watch Lightning Burst Around Hurricane Irma’s Eye

NASA’s lightning-mapping satellite might help predict the behavior of massive storms.

The GOES-16 satellite has been in space for less than a year, but its Geostationary Lightning Mapper has been providing some incredible images and interesting data. Its most recent observations, however, weren’t of a typical electrical storm. GOES-16 captured Hurricane Irma barreling across the Caribbean and bursting with lightning.

Hurricanes combine some of the most severe weather phenomena possible, but lightning is not typically a part of their repertoire. They lack a lot of the vertical winds that rub ice crystals and water droplets together and generate electricity that discharges as a bolt. When a hurricane does produce lightning, like Irma, it’s not a good sign. Studies suggest that when a lightning occurs in a hurricane’s eyewall, the swirling winds around the calm center, the storm tends to intensify rapidly a day later.

Eyewall lightning was observed during Hurricanes Rita, Katrina, and Emily, all large, intense storms in 2005. And GOES-16 got its first view of hurricane lightning very recently, as Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm. Because the Geostationary Lightning Mapper is so new, the data it collects is still considered experimental, but it’s a promising tool for predicting hurricane behavior and, perhaps, saving lives.