According to the statistics from the South African Weather Service, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of lightning related injuries and deaths in the world. The weather entity also indicated that on average, the country loses more than 200 deaths a year. The other countries that annually record the highest death and injuries associated with lightning are the USA and India.
But this would soon be a thing of the past thanks to Maqsooda Mohamed’s innovation. Mahomed, who is from the school of agricultural, earth and environmental sciences, has developed a “near-real-time lightning warning system” (NRT-LWS). She recently presented her research project at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium last week.
Mahomed said she is worried that South Africa is prone to lighting incidences exacerbated by climate change, adding that indications are that there is going to be a further increase in lightning activity in future.
Said Maqsooda: “South Africa has one of the highest incidences of lightning-related injuries and deaths in comparison to the rest of the world.”
Of the country’s nine provinces, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) seems to record the high incidences of death and injuries caused by lightning. Recently, about four people were killed while a 10-year-old and 14-year-old were admitted to hospital after being struck by lightning in the province.
Mahomed’s research targeted 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 she focused on this part of the province because generally rural areas lacked fully enclosed metal-topped vehicles and infrastructure to protect against lighting and this leave them vulnerable.
She said: “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.”
Mohamed said as the system operated automatically, it minimised the potential for human error in its operation. She added: “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.”
She said the system’s monitoring and warning capacity could improve the preparedness of rural communities to lightning and prevent the loss of life. According to Mohamed, the NRT-LWS was evaluated against the SA Lightning Detection Network (SALDN), which operated concurrently at a national scale.
“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,” Mohamed said.
Research, she said, into the use of lightning data for tracking changes in conditions to monitor severe weather such as supercell tornadoes were also conducted.
She claims that her warning system detected last year’s tornado in New Hanover, outside Pietermaritzburg, which left destruction in its wake in the area. “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,” Mohamed said.
She said this would be particularly useful to extend warning lead times when adverse weather occurred over populated areas. The warning system showed its capability as a risk-based warning system for a variety of environmental conditions, added Mohamed.
This information can be beneficial to farmers, community members, municipal officials, she said, adding disaster risk management agencies with measurable thresholds upon which actions can be initiated.