Lightning is dangerous, but it could also hold the secret to better tornado prediction

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Lightning often draws people to their windows to watch mother nature crack her white-hot knuckles, but you really should know the peril of getting caught under her fist.

"It's dangerous. It can kill you, and it doesn't even have to hit you to kill you," explains UAH Research Professor Hugh Christian.

He studies lightning at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, along with about 50 other people.  If you study it, you come to respect it.

"Lightning kills more people in the U.S. on average than tornadoes or hurricanes," Christian points out.

So you should respect it too.  Don't let yourself get caught off guard in a lightning event.

Christian offers this advice, "The best thing is inside. Inside provides some protection. Inside a car is quite protective, because cars generally are steel, and steel is a good conductor of electricity. So if lightning hits your car, it will tend to travel along the outside of your car and go to ground."

Even if you make it into the house, you have to stay aware.

"One of the things you don't want to do, if you have the old-fashioned telephones that are wired into the system, that are not wireless, you don't want to be on a telephone in that case when it hits, because it can actually travel up those wire into your ear. Which is not good," adds Christian.

You can't expect much mercy at the hands of mother nature, so take charge of your own safety.

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Meanwhile, Sarah Stough also pores over lightning like the storms she studies.  She's a research assistant at UAH.

"I think it's fascinating that lightning actually gives you a pulse of what's going on with a thunderstorm," said Stough.

Because lightning, while dangerous, can also point you in the right direction for storm prediction.

Stough adds, "Lightning does give you an indication that the updraft of a thunderstorm is strengthening, which does relate to the tornado genesis process."

With all this studying, one major advance in the field of lightning is a satellite that will monitor every lightning strike in the western hemisphere.

Christian chimes in, "With the observations from the Geostation lightning map, we'll be able to improve tornado warning times from a little over 10 minutes to over 20 minutes, and we'll be able to have higher probability of detection and lower false alarm rates."

If lightning gives us extra warning for tornadoes, it could actually save lives.  Plus, lightning could help us see through false alarms.

Christian expounds, "Lower false alarm rate is actually equally important, because it's the old crying wolf problem."

So this weapon, straight from the arsenals of Thor and Zeus, could become a weapon for meteorologists.

Over at UAH, they push toward that daily.

"We're developing a new capability and technique for triggering lightning, so we can bring lightning down to the ground where we want it to occur, so we can study its details," explains Christian.

They plan to attach a mechanism to a balloon, enabling them to create their own lightning and study impacts.

Just another tool to harness the knowledge of the skies.