We ask a meteorologist how lightning works – and more!

Today is World Meteorological Day, celebrating the 70 year inception of the World Meteorological Organization. Meteorology is the study of the atmosphere and has a large focus on weather forecasting. But as we celebrate our local and national T.V. meteorologists, as well as the countless more people whose work informs our understanding of weather and climate, today holds an even special meaning for me. Why? Because my dad is a meteorologist! 

Having an in-house meteorologist is exactly as you’d expect: chaotic, fun and occasionally, extremely useful. I’ll never forget the one time my dad said while we were at a nearby park, “Let’s run home. It’s gonna rain in seven minutes.” And it indeed started raining, in exactly seven minutes. But there have also been times when he told us it was ok to leave the house without an umbrella, and then we’d get rained on almost immediately.

So with that in mind, I thought I would sit down and ask my dad some of the most common questions that a meteorologist gets asked. 

Why did the forecast say it would rain today, but it didn’t? 

There’s some uncertainty in our weather predictions; the way we do weather forecasts uses different models, which are pretty accurate because the computers are advanced. But there are certain meteorological processes that we can’t quite accurately predict, so doing very exact weather predictions are still pretty challenging. That’s why a lot of the time, we give out percentages, rather than exact answers.

Do meteorologists believe that climate change is real?

 Yes, and I would say most of us do (and of course, a very, very small percentage of those who don’t). But we understand the physics and chemistry of climate change since this is what we do, and we know from the data that climate change really is happening around us, and has been happening around us, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. If you think of it like this, our planet’s atmosphere is kind of like a car. If you leave that car out in the sun, the inside is going to get so much hotter than the outside. That’s called the greenhouse effect, and it works the same way. If we keep on pumping greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, etc.) into the air, the planet’s going to get hotter, just like the car’s inside. So yes, climate change is very real. 

How does lightning work?

The reason we have lightning is because there are certain regions in the atmosphere where we have liquid droplets and ice crystals. The droplets are smaller, so they move up, whereas the crystals are larger and are following down. When the two collide, they create friction and generate static electricity. Like when you aggressively rub your hair and then shock yourself when you touch something else. Lightning is created in a similar way.

What’s the weather going to be like in a week?

That depends on where you are! We have so many satellites out there monitoring current weather and patterns around the country, and again, using our models, we can try to predict what it’s going to be like in your regions within the next week. And again, it’s a prediction, and things are going to change because no one can ever really predict nature.

What’s the coolest part about your work?

So my particular research at Texas A&M University looks into how human activity changes weather. For example, how does air pollution cause flooding, more enhanced lightening, or even stronger hurricanes. That’s just incredible, to see directly through observations and data collection and working with other meteorologists around the world, just how large of an impact humans have on our environment. Every day, it’s a reminder that our behaviour changes our environment, and that we need to collectively work to do better.

Hope his answers brought you some joy and a better grasp of what our amazing meteorologists do every day. If you have any questions you’d like answered, please leave a comment and I’ll make sure he gets them answered for you!

Happy World Meteorological Day!

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