United States

United States

Do turbines make the weather? Meteorologist investigates repeated thundersnow at US wind farm

Scientists in the US are investigating a possible connection between thundersnow – a phenomenon combining heavy snow and thunder – and whether wind turbines are increasingly vulnerable to lightning strikes during these weather events.

Meteorologists are investigating the connection between wind farms and lightning strikes during thundersnow incidents (pic credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)
Meteorologists are investigating the connection between wind farms and lightning strikes during thundersnow incidents (pic credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

A wind farm in upstate New York could even be influencing weather patterns to the point that lightning during thundersnow incidents occurs there rather than at nearby Lake Ontario, according to a meteorologist who is studying the phenomenon.

Lightning and thundersnow is most prevalent downwind from the eastern Great Lakes in North America, according to Scott Steiger, professor of meteorology at the State University of New York, Oswego.

‘Lit up like a Christmas tree’

Last week, a thundersnow incident occurred near the 324MW Maple Ridge wind farm on Tug Hill. Lightning during the weather event caused the wind farm to be “lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Steiger.

Steiger speculated that the wind farm – comprised of 195 Vestas V82-1.65 turbines – was hit during the incident, but Vestas told Windpower Monthly it had not received any reports of "blade incidents" during thundersnow at Maple Ridge in mid-November.

“We will have to do more research to know if the turbines were struck,” said Steiger, who is co-directing a $1m, ground-breaking study entitled “Lake-Effect Electrification (LEE) and the Impacts of Wind Turbines on Electrification East of Lake Ontario.” The study is funded by the respected National Science Foundation.

He added: “We will be doing detailed lightning flash analyses after the field campaign ends in February to look into this.”

Maple Ridge is owned by Avangrid and EDP. Neither company responded to a request for comment on whether an incident occurred at the site last week.

‘Poking the bear’

Steiger said wind turbines may be more vulnerable to lightning strikes when clouds are closer to the ground in winter, an effect he called “poking the bear.”

His study found that ‘lake-effect snow’ in upstate New York occurred when warmer water from Lake Ontario evaporates and the prevailing west winds carry the moisture-laden air over cold ground.

When it is cold enough, the snowfall can be massive and lighting during lake-effect snow then happens at lower altitudes, he said.

In mid-November, frequent lightning occurred at Maple Ridge and then again at the end of the month. Thundersnow has also been reported at Maple Ridge wind farm in previous years, according to tweets by local TV weather reporters.

Is lightning shifting to Maple Ridge?

Steiger said an academic colleague, meteorology professor Robert Ballentine, had a “lightbulb moment” about the connection between thundersnow and lightning strikes around the Maple Ridge wind farm.

He said: “We did some more research and presented a paper about how the lightning climatology during the winter storms has shifted from over the lake to now closer to the wind turbines, so a big part of this project is to try and understand what's going on in the clouds, in terms of the electrical charge regions, where they are setting up and how those charge regions interact with the wind turbines to produce lightning”.

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