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Keywords:

  • lightning;
  • thunderstorm;
  • atmospheric electricity;
  • convection;
  • climatology;
  • remote sensing

[1] The Optical Transient Detector (OTD) is a space-based instrument specifically designed to detect and locate lightning discharges as it orbits the Earth. This instrument is a scientific payload on the MicroLab-1 satellite that was launched into a 70° inclination low Earth orbit in April 1995. Given the orbital trajectory of the satellite, most regions of the Earth are observed by the OTD instrument more than 400 times during a 1 year period, and the average duration of each observation is 2 min. The OTD instrument optically detects lightning flashes that occur within its 1300 × 1300 km2 field of view during both day and night conditions. A statistical examination of OTD lightning data reveals that nearly 1.4 billion flashes occur annually over the entire Earth. This annual flash count translates to an average of 44 ± 5 lightning flashes (intracloud and cloud-to-ground combined) occurring around the globe every second, which is well below the traditional estimate of 100 fl s−1 that was derived in 1925 from world thunder day records. The range of uncertainty for the OTD global totals represents primarily the uncertainty (and variability) in the flash detection efficiency of the instrument. The OTD measurements have been used to construct lightning climatology maps that demonstrate the geographical and seasonal distribution of lightning activity for the globe. An analysis of this annual lightning distribution confirms that lightning occurs mainly over land areas, with an average land/ocean ratio of ∼10:1. The Congo basin, which stands out year-round, shows a peak mean annual flash density of 80 fl km−2 yr−1 in Rwanda, and includes an area of over 3 million km2 exhibiting flash densities greater than 30 fl km−2 yr−1 (the flash density of central Florida). Lightning is predominant in the northern Atlantic and western Pacific Ocean basins year-round where instability is produced from cold air passing over warm ocean water. Lightning is less frequent in the eastern tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean basins where the air mass is warmer. A dominant Northern Hemisphere summer peak occurs in the annual cycle, and evidence is found for a tropically driven semiannual cycle.