New Worlds: Lightning activity peaks a day before hurricane winds do

Israeli scientists have discovered a way to predict the intensity of the storms with considerable accuracy.

June 21, 2009 06:35
3 minute read.
New Worlds: Lightning activity peaks a day before hurricane winds do

Hurricane dean 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

Hurricanes are Earth's most destructive storms, causing devastation every year. Now Israeli scientists have discovered a way to predict their intensity with considerable accuracy, even though these storms spend most of their "lives" over tropical oceans, where few people reside and few measurements are taken. Prof. Colin Price of Tel Aviv University, together with Prof. Yoav Yair and Dr. Mustafa Asfur of the Open University of Israel, have discovered a surprising connection between lightning activity and hurricane intensity. They published their findings in Nature Geoscience. The scientists studied 58 intense hurricanes around the world between 2005 and 2007, and found that 56 showed a significant correlation between wind velocity and lightning activity. In addition, for more than 70% of the hurricanes, the lightning activity peaked about one day before the winds did. Recent advances in global lightning detection have allowed scientists to measure the electrical "pulse" of hurricanes from thousands of kilometers away. Today, lightning activity can be monitored in real time using only a few dozen ground stations, all synchronized through the Internet with global positioning system (GPS) clocks. One such station is in Tel Aviv, and the real-time images of global lightning are freely available at FIGHTING THE BRAIN DRAIN The fact that the government has decided to increase the budget of the Science and Technology Ministry by 60% indicates that it has decided to promote research and development, said its minister, MK Daniel Herschkowitz at a recent meeting of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee. The minister said he would put more stress on discouraging the brain drain of young scientists, and expand science education in all sectors of society. The state "invests about $1 million in every scientist, but the fruits are often harvested in the US, where 3,000 of Israel's 4,000 scientists now live," he asserted. "We must bring back these Israeli scientists," said Herschkowitz. The minister said he would establish a coordinating body for science, at the suggestion of MK Meir Shetreet, chairman of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee. This body would include the minister, the president of the Israel National Academy of Science and the Arts, the chairman of the Council of Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee, the head of the National Council for Research and Development, the head of the Israel Defense Forces, the Defense Ministry's Administration for Research and Development and the chief scientists of the Science and Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry. Herschkowitz said his ministry aimed at reorganizing and coordinating scientific policies, and "resuscitating" the Ministerial Committee on Science to forge long-term scientific policy. His ministry would also institutionalize startup research and finance dozens of one-year projects carried out by individual scientists. Neurology Prof. Oded Abramski, chairman of the National Council for Research and Development, said he was encouraged by the fact that the science minister is himself a scientist, adding that "I see good days ahead for research, science and technology in Israel." DID EVOLUTION MAKE US CANCER PRONE? Did some human mutations during evolution play a role in our susceptibility to diseases such as cancer? Researchers at Ben-Gurion University's National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN) have a hunch that there is a connection. Dr. Eitan Rubin, an internationally recognized expert in bioinformatics, and Dr. Dan Mishmar, from the life sciences department, are members of the NIBN and collaborators on an intellectual journey that they believe provides enough clues to answer this question. The team set out to look for mutations in the genome of the mitochondria - the part of every cell responsible for energy production, and which is passed to offspring only by females - that may have functional importance for evolution as well as for disease. "We hypothesized that some mutations accumulated during evolution played a role in human adaptation to ancient environments, and play a role in today's susceptibility to complex diseases such as cancer," explains Rubin. "To test this we analyzed the same data in a different way and showed that there is a connection." Their findings were recently featured as the cover story of the leading US journal Genome Research. The team - including two graduate students - found that the mitochondrial genome of humans who migrated out of Africa to Europe 100,000 years ago carried seven mutations found in almost all of today's Europeans. Since such "evolutionary mutations" are found in the general population, many researchers regard them as functionally unimportant. "We are the first to show conclusive evidence of the role of mitochondrial evolutionary mutations and cancer," declares Mishmar. Rubin adds: "We hope this will direct us to new ways of predicting how cancer appears in humans."

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