How the Buffalo Blizzard Links Thunderstorms to Wind Turbines

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Sparks of groundbreaking science are emerging from the historic lake-effect blizzard that hit western New York over the weekend. A research project at the State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) has collected unprecedented data on how wind turbines can produce lightning in a snowstorm often referred to as a “thunderstorm.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Project LEE (Lake-Effect Electrification) will run through March 2023. The study has already garnered major success from the intense multi-day episode of Lake Effect snow that has afflicted the eastern ends of Lakes Ontario and Erie, including the Buffalo area.

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Dozens of lightning bolts were spotted in bands of snow on the Tug Hill Plateau on Friday night. The Maple Ridge wind farm — New York’s largest with 195 turbines — is located on the plateau about 50 miles northeast of the Oswego campus. It’s a place that’s good for generating wind power, but also notorious for some of the heaviest lake-effect snow on earth.

Scott Steiger, professor of meteorology at SUNY Oswego, was up all night watching the data roll in. A Lightning Mapping Array (LMA) consisting of 16 sensors distributed over the plateauis designed to compose a three-dimensional portrait of each flash.

“It was the most powerful flash I’ve ever seen in lake effect snow,” Steiger said Sunday, adding he was “tired” but “excited.”

According to Steiger, this field project is the first time Lightning within snow bands is observed so detailed. Steiger is co-leading the LEE project with another SUNY Oswego faculty member, Yonggang Wang.

A Doppler on Wheels (DOW) mobile radar unit from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is available for the next few weeks of the project. The DOW data will help researchers link lightning generation to precipitation processes that occur within each snow band.

As the local snow bands — oriented roughly west-east, parallel to Lake Ontario — oscillate north and south over the course of a multi-day event, the DOW is working to keep up with them.

On Friday evening, the DOW captured intense snow bands near Watertown, north of Oswego and the wind farm. The radar was moved closer to Oswego itself on Sunday.

“Today’s storm was very electric,” said Josh Wurman, founder of Doppler on Wheels, in an email on Sunday. “The project is going extremely well so far.”

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Project LEE is also a hands-on learning experience for more than 20 students at SUNY Oswego. They do some of the toughest work, from providing and maintaining the equipment to launch balloon-borne lightning sensors.

A native of upstate New York, Steiger has long been fascinated by the infamous snow bands that develop downwind of the Great Lakes. Steiger was also involved in a previous study, the Ontario Winter Lake-Effect Systems (OWLeS) project, which collected and analyzed radar and aircraft data on snow bands during the winter of 2013-14.

It was OWLeS data that inspired Project LEE. Most of the lightning observed in OWLeS occurred inland rather than near and outside the lake shore, which surprised the study team.

SUNY Oswego professor Robert Ballentine, who is now retired, noted that the wind farm appeared to coincide with the site of the highest inland lightning strike.

The next step, now being tackled by the LEE project, is to more accurately map how lighting is triggered within snow bands.

Lightning damage is a growing concern for wind power companies. Like any tall structure, a wind turbine can serve as a point of impact for downward propagating lightning. However, as turbines get larger, they seem more likely to trigger upward-propagating lightning that propagates from the turbine into a storm, rather than the other way around.

Power Technology magazine reported in 2021 that manufacturer Vestas paid around $200 million in claims related to turbine damage caused by lightning in the second quarter of 2020.

Data from the LEE project can help determine the extent to which turbine-triggered lightning, as opposed to downward-propagating lightning, is the predominant lightning type in snow bands near wind farms.

For project organizers, getting a celebratory event near the front end of a field campaign is a great relief. Atmospheric fieldwork is sometimes hampered by the inherent rarity of the high-profile events they seek to document. Even when the quarry is seemingly as reliable as a tornado in Oklahoma or a hurricane in Florida, each field campaign can be neglected by the vagaries of a particular season.

As Wurman puts it, “Collecting scientific data in an extremely high-quality event is rare.”

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