UKZN Phd student develops lightning warning system for rural communities
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Durban - A University of KwaZulu-Natal PhD student has developed a near-real-time lightning warning system (NRT-LWS) for rural communities in South Africa.
Maqsooda Mahomed, who is from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, presented her research project at the UKZN Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium last week.
“South Africa has one of the highest incidences of lightning-related injuries and deaths in comparison to the rest of the world,” she said.
Mahomed said it was a cause for concern that South Africa was already a lighting-prone country with increased activity because of climate change, and projections showed a further increase in lightning activity.
Lighting has a devastating impact on KwaZulu-Natal with many lives lost each year.
In the past few weeks, at least four people were killed. A 10-year-old and 14-year-old were also taken to hospital after being struck.
Mahomed’s research was conducted within the rural community of Swayimane in KZN. It focused on the development and assessment of a community ground-based lightning early warning system to detect and disseminate lightning threats and alerts quickly.
Mohamed said rural areas, in particular, lacked fully enclosed metal-topped vehicles and infrastructure to protect against lighting, which left communities vulnerable.
“The system is comprised of an electric field meter and a lightning flash sensor with warnings disseminated via audible (siren) and visible (beacon lights) alarms on-site and with a remote server issuing SMSes and email alerts.”
Since the system operated automatically, it minimised the potential for human error in its operation, she said.
“In the event of global system for mobile communication network failure, the audible and visible alarm systems remain in place to alert the surrounding community in the case of a lightning warning.”
Mahomed said the system’s monitoring and warning capacity could improve the preparedness of rural communities to lightning and prevent the loss of life.
The NRT-LWS was evaluated against the SA Lightning Detection Network (SALDN), which operated concurrently at a national scale, she explained.
“This provided first insight into the use of the SALDN for local scales, encouraging the SA Weather Service to expand its lightning warnings to rural communities. “
Mahomed said research into the use of lightning data for tracking changes in conditions to monitor severe weather such as supercell tornadoes were also conducted.
She said her warning system detected last year’s tornado in New Hanover, outside Pietermaritzburg, which left a trail of destruction..
“The research demonstrated that total lightning data from early warning systems can be beneficial and add to other lightning warning indicators, providing a greater lead-time over radars on its own, for example.”
This would be especially useful to extend warning lead times when adverse weather occurred over populated areas, she said.
Mahomed said the warning system showed its capability as a risk-based warning system for a variety of environmental conditions.
“This information can be beneficial to farmers, community members, municipal officials and disaster risk management agencies with measurable thresholds upon which actions can be initiated.”