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Environment

25. African Lightning Stirs U.S. Hurricanes

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Intense lightning storms in East Africa are linked to the creation of America’s hurricanes, says a team of Israeli atmospheric scientists. Colin Price and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University studied data from 26 observation stations worldwide, comparing lightning activity to tropical storm formation during the 2005 and 2006 hurricane seasons. In May, they reported that 90 percent of the Atlantic storms followed a period of above-average lightning activity over the Ethiopian Highlands.

The lightning activity accompanying thunderstorms there is so powerful that it disrupts the flow of tropospheric winds that stream westward over Africa. The resulting turbulence creates atmospheric waves—some of which can stretch 1,500 miles—that race across the Sahara and over the Atlantic. “If you know there’s a lot of lightning in East Africa today, there’s nearly a 100 percent chance that one of these waves will develop in a week’s time,” says Price. And if other factors, such as sea surface temperature and wind shear above the Atlantic, are just right, that wave will grow into a hurricane.

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