It all started with a hunter and a hunch. The man was hunting on his property, which he knew contained a salt dome, when lightning struck close by. He didn’t think much of it until the following year when lightning struck in the same spot.
He contacted a neighbor, Roice Nelson, founder of Landmark Graphics and a noted geophysicist, and asked if lightning could strike twice in the same place and if the dual strikes could have anything to do with the salt dome on his property. Nelson didn’t know but asked another neighbor, Jim Siebert, chief meteorologist for Fox 26 News in Houston, the same question.
Siebert’s answer? “Lightning absolutely can hit the same place twice,” he said. “But I’ll have to research the rest of it.”
Apparently no one else had ever thought to make this connection because research was nonexistent. So Siebert and Nelson founded Dynamic Measurement LLC (DML) and started doing their own.
At this point in the story most people respond with an exasperated, “You guys are crazy!” But there’s some interesting science afoot.
Siebert said that heat and pressure in the subsurface can generate electrical currents and cause them to flow. “When these currents run into a fault, they don’t jump the fault,” he said. “They start to run along the fault.” The more faults, the more currents, which Siebert has dubbed “geomagnetic hot spots.”
When lightning strikes, it tends to seek out the areas with the most geomagnetic hot spots. This, in turn, might indicate areas of faulting.
Right now the company is researching the fact that all lightning strikes are unique, with unique signatures that can be measured. “With each strike, depending on what we’re looking for, we can figure out what’s happening in the subsurface. The cloud-to-ground strikes are being directed more by the geology than anything else,” Siebert said. He added that a contour map of lightning strikes outlines the same areas of oil and gas deposits as well as mineral deposits. DML has a worldwide exclusive license to Vaisala Inc.’s lightning database, which maps every known lightning strike. Current data samples show patterns visible to the naked eye, but DML also can quantify those data points to provide statistical analysis. “That’s been a significant step in the past six months,” Siebert said. DML is still a fledgling company, having received its first patent in January 2013. But it has high ambitions. This type of lightning analysis has applications far beyond oil and gas exploration. Companies that build levees want to know they’re not building them on faults. Pipelines that sit atop electrically charged faults are more susceptible to corrosion. Oak trees tend to get struck by lightning more often than pine trees because of their extensive root system, so forestry departments might have a better idea of which areas are more susceptible.
“If you believe in using aeromagnetics for natural resource exploration, then you also believe in lightning,” Siebert said. “It’s the same thing. The only difference is we don’t have to send an airplane up because Mother Nature has been showing us all along. We have spent the last five years uncovering how to read it.”
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