What is a Lightning Detector and How Does it Work?

Lightning Detection

Lightning detection is a long-drawn process that has been carried out for a long time but via different methods. With the recent developments of weather radar and lightning detector systems, keeping an eye on the movement of a thunderstorm or any phenomenon likely to cause lightning has become infernally easy.

The advantages of detecting lightning are unnumbered. Protecting and saving the lives and livelihood of many are two and most important advantages of this invention.

lightning detection

Coastal regions are most vulnerable to the ocean's wrath and skies, which brings the fright of heavy rainfall and lightning along with it. There are various cases where people lost their lives due to horrendous thunderstrikes.

Many people's houses can crumble down in the blink of an eye, as has happened many times before the invention of the lightning detector and weather radar.

It has become possible to detect the approaching disaster, disseminate this information, and advise the best possible course to the people to keep themselves safe.

So, what is this lightning detector that gets so much adoration? How does it work? How does it allow us to foresee the unfortunate events that are about to happen and where? These are a few of the questions we will seek to answer in this article. Lightning detectors are indeed a helpful invention, and everybody should possess intelligence on this.

So, What is Lightning Detector?

A lightning detector is an instrument that detects lightning, which is a direct consequence of thunderstorms. It can foretell the location and magnitude of lightning and warns the concerned people to seek shelter and are implored to remain safe.

It can give early warnings and aid in mitigating the severity of the impending disaster. It can forewarn the individual or an agency (depending upon the type) and guide you through protecting yourself.

If the magnitude of the thunderstorm is exponential and will take days to calm down, it will tell you to take refuge wherever possible and give you a clear signal when it is safe to be out and when your life is not at risk.

Predominantly, there are three types of lightning detectors, ground-based, space-based and mobile system.

The Ground-based and mobile space-based use the radio direction methods to compute the movement and magnitude of lightning with various other particulars.

In the mobile system, you will get a multitude of medians to detect lightning, thanks to rapid enhancement of technology.

Lightning Detector Components:

Prominently, the following are the components used by lightning detectors to detect lightning.

Radio Frequency Detectors:

These are apt for measuring the direction and the distance of the lightning with intel on its magnitude.

Network systems:

Various weather networks have a warning coverage of the USA and Canada are connected with lightning detectors, those are

  • National Lightning Detection Network
  • WeatherBug Total Lightning Network
  • United States Precision Lightning Network
  • Surveillance et Alerte Foudre par Interferometrie Radioelectrique (SAFIR)

Electric-field mills:

They tend to measure the voltage and the changes in the electric field of the earth.

Optical monitors: 

They use visuals to detect the cloud-to-cloud lightning movement and render information accordingly.

These are just a few means to name how lightning can be detected. Though there numerous ways to detect the direction and distance of thunderstorms and lightning, the underlying principle of detection remains the same.

The procedure, however, varies from type to type. We will discuss the functionality and operation of lightning detectors and endeavor to unravel a few unanswered questions along the way.

How do Lightning Detectors Work?

Lightning can be detected by detecting the radio waves emitted by lightning strikes in the concerned channels. This information is digitally converted for analysis.  

The lightning detector and the weather radar collaboration is what makes the detection easy. In this combination, lightning detectors focusing on the electrical advances and weather radar focusing on the location and the amount of precipitation which allows us to assess the magnitude and the precise movement of the lightning.

Lightning is produced when a cloud takes a certain shape, and it is the weather radar that forewarns about the formation. It lets you know precisely when and where a shower cloud has taken the form of a thunderstorm.

In some cases, lightning can occur outside the precipitation zone which rarely happens but happens. The sounds of these are still reverberated in the central zone of the precipitation.

Lightning strikes occur mainly in following three forms,

  • Within a cloud
  • Cloud-to-cloud
  • Cloud to ground

Detection agencies across the United States, such as National Lightning Detection Network and Total Lightning Network, follow all kinds of lightning strikes, cloud to ground strike is most hazardous and can cause damage on a large scale. Cloud to ground strikes has massive currents that can be detected in no time through these agencies operation.

Nowadays, lightning detection can be done using phones and multiple portable detectors that can give you a vague picture of the thunderstorm and the lightning yet enough for you to assess the best course of action for yourself.

They use the same mechanism as professional detectors with a few variations. These personal lightning detectors are very basic in nature when comparing professional types of equipment.

Moreover, professional detectors possess numerous sensors that give a lot of data with few clicks and snaps. Personal detectors lack largely behind in this sphere.

They cannot give you precise numerical data about the magnitude of the lightning but give a basic report about the direction and distance, which is enough to provide you with a fair idea about the movement.

These are generally used by hikers and campers who often find themselves in unusual places where a natural disaster is expected.


Lightning detection is something that can now be done by individuals and agencies alike effectively and efficiently. The need for early warnings is pretty clear, and importance has become evident with many events where a region hard-struck by thunderstorms and lightning.

Many hikers and campers have lauded the invention and functioning of lightning detectors as it has helped them in their endeavors innumerable times.

Now you know how the lightning detector works, you could use it in your adventures or maybe carry a top rated weather radio that gives a detailed account of how the weather will change and if there is anything to worry about.

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About the Author


I am Tim, a weather enthusiast who loves to watch hurricanes and all other harsh weather conditions. I studied B.Sc(Meteorology) at the University of Miami. With excellent knowledge of Weather Forecasting, Meteorology, and Environmental Science, I am currently working in San Francisco as a Meteorologist. Also, I am a member of The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. In this blog, I will write a detailed review of Weather instruments that you need for survival and other activities.