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Hi-tech system brings lightning-quick storm warnings to Africa

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 15 Jul 2014 12:56 GMT
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A man points to three sections where a river embankment broke after torrential rains, displacing some 6,000 people in Yagoua, Far North Region, Cameroon, Oct. 31, 2013. TRF/Misha Hussain
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DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Africa’s first lightning-sensor weather warning system in Guinea is helping save lives and protect property from storms across West Africa at a fraction of the cost of traditional radar technology, meteorological experts say.

Guinea lies on the western coast of Africa, one of the continent’s most densely populated regions, prone to severe storms and flash floods. In 2009, floods affected 940,000 people across 12 countries, from Senegal down to Benin, according to the United Nations.

“In Guinea, we don’t have the resources to install expensive radar systems, which require a lot of expertise and maintenance, so this new system is promising,” said Mamadou Lamine Bah, director of the National Meteorological Society.

Bah said the system has already been put to good use, providing warnings of storms earlier this year, including one that hit just 50km north of Guinea’s capital Conakry, where 2 million people live on the seafront at the mercy of the Atlantic.

Earth Networks, the U.S.-based company that came up with the idea, says the technology is simple, efficient, and easy to install and maintain.

“Imagine tuning into an AM station on your car radio during a lightning storm. Every time you see a flash of lightning, the radio crackles due to an electromagnetic pulse, and that’s what we measure,” Bob Marshall, CEO of Earth Networks, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.  

“Some 12 stations, known as the ‘total lightning sensor network’, are set up around Guinea to measure the pulses sent out by lightning, which is associated with severe weather. The network uses this information to triangulate the exact location and trajectory of the storm,” he explained.

COMMUNICATION CHALLENGE

The cost of the service provided by Earth Networks, including the sensors, data collection, quality control, forecast production and early warning delivery, is between $1 million and $2 million per year for a country the size of Guinea, roughly as big as Britain. 

“(Weather) radar costs about 10 times that amount, because you need many radars to cover the whole of Guinea, but you also need to maintain them - which has never been possible in Africa,” said Marshall, noting that very few radar systems work in Africa.

The lightning sensors have already been used in the United States, where the National Weather Service has found that early warnings sourced from lightning detection alone are 50 percent faster than alerts currently provided by national weather stations. 

Guinea’s new technology could serve West African neighbours too. Radiation from lightning propagates hundreds of miles, so the 12 sensors in Guinea can detect weather patterns from as far north as Senegal and Mali, down to Liberia and Sierra Leone, Marshall said.

Now that the technology has been trialled and proven to work in a least developed country, Earth Networks is hoping to take it Africa-wide, he added.

But Bah says the hard work has only just started: “We now have the technology to be able to predict severe storms. The next big challenge is how do we get that information out quickly to the people that need it?” 

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

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