In Florida, nation's only lightning center closes after DARPA cuts funding (w/video)

Rocket-and-wire triggered lightning at University of Florida’s International Center for Lightning Research and Testing.
Rocket-and-wire triggered lightning at University of Florida’s International Center for Lightning Research and Testing.
Published July 23, 2017

University of Florida professor Martin Uman usually spends much of his summer at an old Army base about an hour northeast of Gainesville, shooting rockets at thunderclouds, then measuring the bright flashes of lightning that follow.

First comes the countdown — 3, 2, 1 — then the loud fwoooooooosh! of the rocket climbing into the darkened sky towing a copper wire. If it works as planned, Uman said, what follows is "a bright flash of light and a hell of a bang."

The facility Uman, 81, has run at Camp Blanding since 1994 is the only outdoor lightning research lab in the country — or rather, it was the only one.

This year, for the first time since he became director of UF's International Center for Lightning Research and Testing in 1972, Uman is spending his summer indoors, poring over 20 years of old data. He watches the afternoon storms roll in without any of his usual instrumentation at hand.

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"I'd rather be out there shooting rockets," he said.

The reason for his enforced idleness? The mysterious federal agency that funneled millions of dollars into his research for the past decade has mysteriously cut him off.

"It's the end of an era," he said.

The agency in question is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Also known as DARPA, it's the research arm of the Pentagon, best known for inventing the Internet and running an annual robotics competition.

The agency spent millions on lightning research as part of an initiative it called "Nimbus," financing research at eight different institutions, then suddenly stopped.

No longer can Uman perform the kind of important research that over the years shaped the design of lightning surge protectors for electrical devices and led to the creation of an app that can pinpoint where lightning has struck.

News that he had lost DARPA's $2 million-a-year funding hit Uman like a bolt from the blue. He got a letter last spring informing him of the decision, with no explanation.

"I think they just decided that they had done enough," he said. "That's the game."

Thus came the end of the only place in America where lightning always struck the same place twice. There are two more such labs in China, Uman said, but no others.

A DARPA spokesman didn't give a specific reason for the end of Nimbus but offered this general overview of what happens when the agency stops supporting a program:

"DARPA's funding role ends after proving at a fundamental level the potential for a new capability, after which a military, academic or civilian organization will typically pick it up for further research and development," said spokesman Jared Adams, adding that "because DARPA focuses explicitly on game-changing, non-incremental goals, some DARPA efforts do not transition upon their conclusion."

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Nimbus still has its own page on the DARPA website, calling it a "fundamental science program focused on obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the lightning process, its associated emissions (such as X-rays), and its ionospheric components to better protect troops, ordnance and other military assets."

"They claimed they had no interest in using lightning as a weapon," Uman said. "If there were generals having meetings behind our research, we didn't know about it."

The son of a lawyer, Uman grew up in Tampa back when many of the streets were unpaved and mosquitoes had little to fear from insecticide. He spent summers watching the skies the way everyone else in Florida does. He didn't start studying lightning until much later, after he earned a doctorate from Princeton.

In 1963, lightning struck a Boeing 707, causing its fuel to explode. All 81 people on board were killed. Then, in 1969, four months after the successful Apollo 11 moon landing, Apollo 12 was hit by lightning twice shortly after takeoff. Power systems in the capsule shut down. The astronauts nearly aborted the mission before someone in Mission Control figured out a workaround.

Those two incidents opened the spigots for federal money to flow to lightning research, Uman explained. He was working for Westinghouse then, and the company dispatched him to Cape Canaveral to start investigating the phenomenon. Two years later he landed a job at the University of Florida.

Many of the most basic questions about lightning have long been a mystery, such as how it starts in the clouds, or why it behaves the way it does, arcing from cloud to ground, or ground to cloud, or cloud to cloud.

Or take ball lightning — luminous spheres that hover near the ground after some lightning strikes. Although first described by the ancient Greeks, Uman said, even today no one really knows what it is. He has tried over and over to reproduce it, drawing lightning down to electrify every substance from muddy water to bat guano. He said he was "half successful."

Florida is the perfect place to dig into those questions because it's the lightning capital of America. Lightning strikes here more often than in any other state, putting lives and property at risk with every flash.

A wire-towing rocket flying as high as the Empire State Building can draw down a stroke of lightning from a cloud 3 miles away. DARPA funding allowed Uman to install high-speed cameras and other instrumentation to analyze what happened when the lightning crashed down, detecting such things as the emissions of X-rays.

"People came from all over to study it," Uman said. That work produced dozens of scientific research papers every year, not to mention advances in technology.

One of the biggest advances came when he and a colleague developed a method for predicting lightning strikes to help fight wildfires. It metamorphosed into the Spark mobile app that warns when there's lightning nearby.

But without funding, that's all done with. Uman has been busy writing grant proposals to everyone he can think of, but so far there have been no takers. The only way things may change, he said, is if there's another tragedy — another plane crash, for instance.

In the meantime, he keeps hoping for a stroke of luck.

"We thought about selling tickets," he joked. "Or maybe sell the naming rights for the next lightning stroke. For $5,000 you get to name the lightning and push the button."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.