Barry McNamara  |   Published February 01, 2016

Lightning research

Through NSF grant, Monmouth College partners with area schools to study storms
What does it take to study lightning? Monmouth College physics professor Chris Fasano would suggest two one-word answers – patience and teamwork.

Fasano was able to reward his “team” with a trip to last fall’s Prairie Section meeting of the American Physical Society (APS), held at the University of Notre Dame. The Prairie Section is composed of 10 Midwestern states.

“We took about 50 people, including 18 high school students and five high school teachers,” said Fasano, who said the trip was funded by a portion of the $228,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant he received in 2012 to study lightning. “We attended lots of interesting talks and went to a nice banquet, which was followed by a planetarium show. Also, Ryan Sink (a junior from Danville, Iowa), presented a poster on our research.”

Teachers and students from the partnering area high schools of Abingdon, AlWood, Galesburg, Mercer County, Monmouth-Roseville and Burlington (Iowa) were among the contingent.

“I’ve been really impressed with the high school teachers,” said Fasano. “That’s become a highlight of this project. I knew the students would benefit, but I had not fully appreciated how valuable the experience would be for the teachers.”

The idea behind developing a team of area teachers and students, said Fasano, is that each school has received lightning detectors through the NSF grant, and they can acquire data on the same storm from different vantage points. Looking forward, Fasano hopes to secure a renewal of the NSF grant to get 10 more detectors.

“More detectors will mean more range for our research and getting more students involved,” he said. “By having many detectors that run continuously, we are hoping to be able to accumulate enough data to begin to understand how particles are accelerated in the atmosphere.”

Fasano explained that the transient and unpredictable nature of lightning is a major challenge. “Since we can’t predict where lightning will strike or when it will strike, we need to be watching at as many places and for as long as we can.”

With the teamwork element established and set to grow, Fasano explained the other key element to the project – patience.

First, there needs to be a thunderstorm, a key ingredient that was missing for several months after the detectors first arrived. But even when storms come with regularity, quick assumptions cannot be made.

“No one is really taking data like this,” he said. “Normally, graduate students would have to publish quickly, but with lightning research, you have to wait to see what happens. It’s a certain kind of physics, and you have to be very patient.”

Fasano has made two interesting observances so far, the first involving what is likely “radioactive fallout” after a lightning strike. He’s also noted “short-term bursts of photons.”

Fasano, who also attended the American Geophysical Union meeting in December in San Francisco, is now looking forward to the spring storm season and taking more data along with his experienced team of teachers and students in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.
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