NWI Faculty Affiliate Eric Bruning Earns NSF CAREER Award

(Above photo): Dr. Eric Bruning, NWI faculty affiliate and Assistant Professor in ATMO, with some of his research equipment that will contribute to his NSF CAREER award research.

Zeus, the infamous Greek god of sky, thunder and lightning, has been a popular god for centuries: the Greeks made him the greatest of the Olympian gods who ruled the Mount of Olympus. He’s been linked with the Roman god, Jupiter, and is mentioned in Egyptian and Etruscan tales. Homer mentions him in his writings, Plato talks about him, and Norse mythology has Thor as an equivalent, and so it’s clear that people in times past have been fascinated trying to explain the powerful strikes of lightning that have come from the skies for centuries.

At Texas Tech University, Dr. Eric Bruning, Assistant Professor in Atmospheric Sciences, is also interested in researching lightning, and to that end, the National Science Foundation recently announced that Bruning has been awarded a prestigious NSF CAREER grant to enable him to delve a little deeper into the mysteries of the natural phenomenon.

The award is a five-year grant expected to total $738,000, and the project is focused on how electrical energy is distributed in storm clouds and what controls it. The scientific study of lightning has large holes in the knowledge base, and Bruning is planning on filling in some of those gaps with this project.

The CAREER program from the National Science Foundation (NSF) offers the Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who, according to the NSF website, “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of the organizations… [and] build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership…”

According to their website, the NSF was created by Congress in 1950, has an annual budget (FY 2014) of $7.2 billion and is the funding source for approximately 24% of basic research conducted by America’s universities and colleges so it plays an important role in scientific research today.

“Lightning exists and we see it, but we still don’t know that much about what happens inside the cloud,” Bruning explains. “We’ve got the right tools available now, so let’s see what else we can learn about it. In the world of physics, the source of energy that drives things we observe plays an important role, and this project will help us learn how that functions in deeper detail for lightning.”

From how Bruning responds, it’s clear that he is enthusiastic by the potential discoveries in this project, and as Emerson wrote, “enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success.”

Bruning operates the West Texas Lightning Array (WTLMA), which consists of 10 instrumentation platforms spread across Lubbock County. Its coverage extends across the West Texas Mesonet system, a region-wide system of 81 meteorological stations throughout West Texas which measure real-time wind speed and direction, air temperatures, humidity, dew point, solar radiation and other important weather measurements to help forecasters, agriculture and others make accurate and safe plans.

There are LMAs are across the nation, and they are growing in number. The WTLMA is among a regional cluster of LMAs that covers all of West Texas, the Texas Panhandle, and much of Oklahoma. Usually funded by research grants and run by interested university faculty, each LMA needs at least five individual stations to enable effective triangulation of lightning occurrences. LMA-style mapping was initially launched in the 1970’s, but results were extremely laborious back then. With the improved technological advances and the emergence of GPS, LMAs can do far more than the early inventors had originally imagined.

Bruning’s West Texas LMA is also participating in NASA/NOAA’s GOES-R satellite project in its early stages via the project’s Proving Ground and Validation activities. Via the GOES-R project, satellites are scheduled to be shot into space in 2016, but early research (such as Bruning’s) will help to ensure that instrumentation sent into deep space is accurate and works effectively, and that end users are prepared for the new lightning data on GOES-R.

The CAREER project puts a spotlight on lightning, but why is lightning important? Lightning can be fatal in its strength of electrical energy – about 2,000 people are killed every year from lightning as each individual bolt of lightning can contain up to one billion volts of electricity. The sheer number of lightning strikes that hit the earth is astonishing – National Geographic estimates the cloud-to-ground strikes numbering approximately 100/sec which can lead to approximately 1.4 billion flashes a year. (Strikes of lightning are bolts that actually hit the ground or a structure. Flashes of lightning are the bolts that the human eye can see.)

And despite these eye-opening statistics, there is still more to know about lightning (and its constant partner thunder) -- this CAREER project will help future meteorological researchers by building a strong theoretical foundation.

“By looking at data in a new and different manner, we’re hoping to establish fundamental new ideas about lightning and how it is distributed in thunderstorms,” Bruning adds.

The CAREER project will also have a two-year field campaign called “Kinematic Texture and Lightning” (aka “KTAL”) which will take a closer look at the concept of “texture” and how it relates to wind and to lightning. For most people not in the atmospheric science field, a mention of “texture” may bring up images of materials such as linen or silk – basically the same thing, but with varying degrees of weave (or texture). For Bruning and other meteorologists, “texture” refers to a statistical measure, a look at statistics which shows the ongoing Big Picture lightning pattern.

“It’s similar to the idea of thread count in bedsheets,” explains Bruning. “Bedsheets are pretty similar to each other until you take a more detailed look at the thread count and then you start to notice the differences. Meteorologists use a similar analogy in statistical analysis. Lightning (or other types of cloud energy) can look much the same on the whole, but it’s not until you take a closer look that you realize the wide variation of one flash to another, the difference in ‘texture’ of how flashes fill the cloud.”

Statistical analysis will definitely play a leading role in this research, but another (and more unexpected) twist is that Bruning (the scientist) will be working with Professor Tina Fuentes (an artist), faculty in the Texas Tech University Department of Art, to convey this idea of texture in artistic terms. Bruning’s goal is to learn about the particular language that artists use to describe the idea of texture in their worlds, and then to use that knowledge to inform his future work.

During their initial talks, both Bruning and Fuentes realized that there was quite a bit of overlap in each of their academic disciplinary vocabularies. Fuentes goes on to explain, “Here were a scientist and an artist starting as potential collaborators – very different worlds – and we’re using similar words to discuss what our plans are: space, light, luminosity, texture... I was very excited when I realized this,” she added. “To join science and visual art is cutting edge as we’re very closely linked in many ways. They are both highly creative fields.”

Collaboration will also be emphasized throughout the project (and once it’s been completed) as Bruning wants to make sure that all the data from this project (and others in the future) is historically available for future researchers to pull from and use. Generally, project data tends to sit on a researcher’s hard drive until the project is over and done with, and then just sits there some more, neglected and ignored.

Bruning’s plan is to shake this paradigm and to share his hard-earned data collection with others, including high school students, to further scientific endeavors in the future.

“There’s no reason for our future scientists to reinvent the wheel, and yet most data is not shared. Just imagine what advances could be made if researchers could access what’s already been done and then add their contributions.” Bruning said. “There’s no limit.”

“I love doing this research, and I’m lucky that I have a career where I get to do what I want,” Bruning says.

Lightning can be powerful and unpredictable, but Bruning’s aim is to lessen the unpredictable aspect of this natural occurrence. As the writer Mark Twain once wrote, “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it’s lightning that does the work.”

Photo/Text Credit: Liz Inskip-Paulk, NWI/TTU.