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Rights: © Copyright 2014. University of Waikato. All Rights Reserved.
Published 29 April 2014

University of Otago’s space physics expert Associate Professor Craig Rodger describes how the lightning detection network known as WWLLN began. Its origins lie in a University of Otago science project set up by Professor Richard Dowden designed to monitor large thunderstorms for the appearance of red sprites high above the thundercloud.  


WWLLN now is a collective with 60 receivers scattered across the Earth. More than 40 international institutions are collaborating in WWLLN to make it work, but it wasn’t like that at the beginning. At the beginning, it was a science project done here at the University of Otago. And it came about because the head of the Space Physics group at the time – his name is Professor Richard Dowden – he was interested in studying red sprites, and he was going to Darwin to study red sprites. You can study red sprites here in New Zealand, but in the northern part of Australia, the thunderstorms are very reliable – they show up just about every evening. 

One of the things that we were struggling with, as part of that, was tracking the thunderstorms, so we needed to understand more about the lightning and how to detect the lightning and locate it and thereby track it. And Dick realised – he had some fundamental insights into how we could convert the received radio wave into some simple information which would allow us to get the timing that we needed, which would allow us to work out the locations. We set up this mini lightning detection network, and that showed that we could detect lightning.

Prof Dowden used to be a vice president of the International Union of Radio Science, so he had a bunch of scientific friends all over the world, and so he started contacting some of them. He also had ex-students all over the world, so I went with Dick Dowden to Japan, and we set up a station in Osaka. He had a mate who was a senior professor at the Osaka University. Then we flew to Singapore where the head of the Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore was an ex-student of Prof Dowden from Otago. And he said ‘yeah, sure, stick your antenna on my roof, I’ll help’. And it’s a classic example of how people connectivity can lead to good science.

Now we have people coming to us who are interested to collaborate who we don’t actually know initially, but initially it was done by networks of people who knew one another.

Associate Professor Craig Rodger, University of Otago, Department of Physics

Timelapse footage of Hector’s thunderstorm courtesy Murray Fredericks