Staff from UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) visited Swayimana High School near Wartburg to explain the workings of a new state-of-the-art system installed to warn the school and the surrounding community about lightning strikes.
The Campbell Scientific system, the first of its kind to be installed at a high school in South Africa, continuously measures the atmospheric electric charge in the build-up and occurrence of lightning strikes, sending data to an online repository at UKZN which is displayed and updated in real-time.
The system includes three lights coloured red, orange and blue installed at the high school. The blue light flashes when the system shows an all-clear while the orange light flashes when a strike is detected within a 32km radius or when the atmospheric electric field reaches a threshold of 1 000 V m-1.
The red light flashes when there is a strike within 16km or the atmospheric electric field reaches a threshold of 2 000 V m-1. A siren accompanying the red light alerts those nearby to seek shelter indoors. The siren will be activated briefly every 10 minutes for the duration of nearby strikes while emails can be sent to teachers and community leaders to alert them.
The installation of the system is part of the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) managed by the uMgungundlovu District Municipality with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs.
The URP aims to increase resilience of vulnerable communities through interventions such as early warning systems, climate-smart agriculture and climate proofing settlements.
Lightning is a threat to people’s lives, crops and herds in the Swayimane area because of the extreme weather conditions and mountainous terrain.
‘Extreme events will become more intense and more frequent with climate change,’ said Dr Alistair Clulow of SAEES during an address to teachers at the school. Clulow explained the need to measure weather patterns to better understand and prepare for the future, saying that climate change is likely to result in more severe storms, flooding and lightning.
Clulow gave tips on avoiding lightning strikes, and said researchers will work with the school on a response protocol.
The URP and Swayimana High School co-operated from 2016 installing an Agrometeorological Instrumentation Mast (AIM) system to measure and collect real-time data about various parameters such as air temperature, rainfall, leaf wetness, soil water content, relative humidity and more. The data is transmitted to a UKZN server and published on a website where it can be viewed in real time or downloaded.
The site is visible on a smart television screen installed by the URP at the School and is accessible for teaching purposes on computers donated to the School by the project. The School is also home to crop trials and a research tunnel used by UKZN postgraduate students, led by Technical Co-ordinator Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi.
Researchers involved hope this pilot lightning warning system will be rolled out at other schools connected with the URP project.
Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod