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New lightning detection network to assist fire managers across South Africa

By Phillip Frost (CSIR Meraka Institute) and Tony Swemmer (SAEON)
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Most of the ecosystems of South Africa are highly flammable, at least at certain times of the year.

From fynbos in the Western Cape, to the grasslands of the interior, to the savannas in the north and east, fire is an integral part of the natural functioning of ecosystems. And fire management is a key tool for managing these systems, as well as protecting the people and infrastructure found within or beside them.

Fire management starts with predicting and identifying ignition sources, and for that monitoring of lightning is critical. Thousands of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occur every year with the onset of early spring thunderstorms over the Highveld, Lowveld and Southern Cape regions. These predominantly night-time thunderstorms can ignite bone dry vegetation and create wildfires that are very difficult to detect and contain.

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Lightning strikes again as a lightning-ignited fire spreads across a Highveld grassland (Photo by Mitchell Krog, courtesy of www.lightningphotography.co.za)

Near real-time detection of fire events globally

The CSIR Meraka Institute has been responsible for the development and operation of the Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS), which provides fire managers across the globe with information regarding the prediction, detection, monitoring and assessment of wildfires.

The AFIS system utilises a portfolio of polar orbiting as well as GEO stationary satellites to provide near real-time detection of fire events globally. Organisations such as Eskom and Cape Nature rely on the system for automated alerts to any new fires close to infrastructure or sensitive conservation areas.

The CSIR Meraka has deployed a new, low-cost lightning detection network across South Africa called AFIS Strikestar, with the aim to reduce the detection time of lightning-caused wildfires by using satellite technology available through AFIS. The AFIS StrikeStar network is a lightning-detection system designed to enable multiple inter-connected lightning detectors to form a real-time lightning-locating network.

Twenty sensors have been strategically placed across South Africa to enable greatly improved accuracy compared to single sensor systems. The network is comparable to other commercial lightning detection networks for locating areas of thunderstorm activity.

Towards improving fire management in savannas

The SAEON Ndlovu Node has offered to host one of the Strikestar network sensors enabling near real-time lightning detection within a 400 km radius around Phalaborwa. The new sensor streams live lightning strikes in real time to the Strikestar network, where data is triangulated with adjacent sensors to create a national high-resolution detection product.

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A map showing the average number of lightning strikes per year across South Africa (Courtesy of www.weatherphotos.co.za)

Data from this sensor will not only allow for better fire management in the Kruger National Park and the more fire-prone savannas to the west, but will also be valuable for research on the role of fire in the ecology of drier savannas.

The new AFIS premium service will allow users to access not only wildfire information but also lightning strike updates and will allow for the early detection of lightning-caused fires nationally.

Read more at www.afis.co.za. For real-time lightning data visit http://strikestar.afis.co.za

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