Storm Chasing Equipment Failure - Lightning? Radiation?


Jun 12, 2004
Sunrise, Florida
This is a rather interesting subject on the effects on electronic equipment near and in a thunderstorm environment, and what may be the cause and tips on what to do about it.

Just about EVERY single year chasing in the US Plains, I suffer some kind of computer and electronics equipment issue, usually with two or more devices. This does NOT include physical damage (such as anemometer cups being broken by hail).

Last year, 2004, my laptop, a Sony Vaio GRT series, began having problems after a close lightning hit a half a mile away on May 17 near Russel Kansas. The laptop could not charge the battery anymore or even run with the original battery in it. I tried putting my chase partner's battery and it worked for a while, then the same thing happened, and putting his battery back in his laptop (same model by sony), it would not work anymore. This was in addition to USB conflicts with Street Atlas and the Sprint PCS vision card only working intermittently. Also, the Davis weather station, brand new, started having issues where the temp and dewpoint would be the same, and wrong. Also, the anemometer stopped showing windspeed, upon replacing the cups from another unit, it worked. Analysis of the bad cups was no physical damage, but the little magnet inside DE-MAGNETIZED - How?? Up until May 17, 2004, all these things worked perfectly, even after dozens of lightning active chases and hurricane intercepts in Florida.

This year, 2005, Similar issues occurred towards the end of my chase trip in the US Great Plains. My cellular phone, a Sony Ericcson z500a, started "freezing up" and only working intermittently. Turning it off and on, replacing the battery, etc did not work. It would power up with only half the buttons lit, a garbled display, or it would ring once and vibrate while it was locked up (push any button, nothing happens). This was on May 31, 2005 on the supercell NW of Lubbock, Texas. In additon, my brand-new laptop, a Sony Vaio PCG-K45, its LCD backlight stopped working intermittently. The DOS screen shows, then the screen blanks out, I thought it was windows, but all the screen is there if you hold it in direct sunlight to light the LCD. There is no setting to turn it back on. I played with it for a while on the long roadtrip driving back to FL, and after one of many reboots, the LCD screen came back.

I am concluding two possibilities, lightning and static electricity, the most obvious culprit, and a less and more interesting possibility - RF / Microwave radiation. The problems this year started on May 31, and on the Lubbock storm we were the first car on a long caravan of chasers with Mass and OU spinning their DOW truck radars DIRECTLY in front of us. Is it possible that the microwave beam happened to come across my phone clipped high on the visor and even my laptop, sitting high atop luggage in the passenger seat? My chase partner's laptop, on the console and much lower, was not affected.

I also noticed that the WM-918 Oregon Scientific weather station's outside sensors would show "----" in the display instead of dewpoint, temp, wind, ect. This occurred CONSTANTLY near the DOWs when they were scanning, or even when we transmitted on high power 2m on our mobile rig. The issue with the WX station would go away away from any RF fields, and the numbers would appear once again in the display.

On top of my experiences, other chasers in our group have had similar, if not worse, problems with electronics gear (laptops, cameras, etc). Amos Magliocco told me on one chase nearly every electronic component in his chase vehicle started acting strange. His laptop locked up, phone died, even the computer in his truck quit and his car stalled, where he had to restart the vehicle to "reset it". This was on a storm near Indiana / Ohio a couple of years ago. This is making me think a lot more than static from lightning is around a supercell, given that many of the electronics that have had issues were unplugged from any invertor / antenna in fear of preventing lightning damage!!

In Enid, Oklahoma back in May 2002 at a Super-8 Motel, Eric Nguyen, Scott Blair, and myself found a vehicle parked in front of the motel. It was from Los Alamos (NM) and had the "seimenns" and "advanced radiological atmospherics" labels on it. It had a key-swipe in the coded-entry door locks and was armored. In the back was an elaborate collection of electronics and "pipes" coated with foil, all in a "faraday cage" of grated wire surrounding the (reactor?) compartment, and a sign saying "danger: if light is on - nuclear containment failure". This truck was topped with some very strange looking radar dish labeled "high energy pulsed radar". The people for this vehicle left business cards with us, and after months of emailing / phoning with little or no responce, Eric Nguyen got hold of one of the people at Los Alamos and was told very little about what the vehicle is used for. He was told the parts of it, but NOT what it does with a simple "I can't disclose that" answer.

Is this a radar vehicle, or is it a type of HERF (High Energy RF) beam generator - Maybe to warm an RFD to prevent (or hopefully not, enhance) tornado formation? I think it is the latter.

I also know that HERF wrecks havoc with electronics. It burns out components, even erases or de-activates credit cards and memory. Its intention is to disrupt electronics equipment in the first place. Now, if this is being used around a supercell, say from an aircraft or vehicle like the one I described, an inadvertant passage of the HERF beam to personnel on the ground can cause such issues with electronics! Hopefully, the beam will be too weak to affect human tissue as well ;-)

There has been a bit of debate around 2000 upon the use of portable radar systems in the storm chasing areas (such as those used on boats). They interefered with the DOW trucks, violated some FCC rules of usage, and even caused exposure to RF radiation in places it should not have been. Remember, the term "radiation" here is RF (or microwave) energy, and does NOT cause cancer - it is of a much lower energy (longer wave length) than visible light and X-Rays. But RF radiation induces electric currents in metal objects and circuits, that's why computers are the first to be affected by it. At much higher RF power levels, heating occurs in water (such as in the clouds, or hopefully not - in a person standing in the path of a HERF beam). Also, keep in mind that a HERF device does NOT direct ALL the energy in a beam, a small amount often diffuses outside of the beam path.

This is NOT junk science, I am not into that. I am just trying to put my two cents in on how to protect yourselves from losing expensive electronics while storm chasing ... Here are some tips below.

1). During lightning storms, unplug phones and electronics from any car charger or invertor. Disconnect any antennas if possible.

2). Try to keep sensitive electronic devices (video camcorders, laptops) as low in the vehicle as possible (on the floor / seat).

3). Avoid getting in the path of a rotating DOW vehicle's radar dish (especially is the DOW is lower than you on a hill where the beam level will "hit you"). It won't hurt you, but your cell phone on your belt and credit cards in your wallet just might.

4). Use care when getting in and out of your vehicle during a hot chase (on a storm). I got "zapped" as if I touched a door knob when climbing back into my chase vehicle (static electricity). Had I touched my laptop instead of the door frame first, that would be a direct charge to it.

5). Buzzing or cracking antennas mean a high static field ... Stay OFF the radio! Stay IN your vehicle.

My two cents worth for all,

Chris Collura - KG4PJN
Heh. The Siemens truck you saw reminds me of how I used to post our property in Vermont against trespassing with signs saying, "Danger! Photon Irradiation!" It sure sounds like they were just testing out some radar technology in the field and their mention of "nuclear" and "radiological" was just to keep people from bothering them or the truck.

AFA warming RFDs, unless they live in a Universe with different physical laws they have to generate at least as much power somehow as they pump into the air; and if they had succeded in producing such a compact power source, IMHO they wouldn't be driving it around and messing with radar or HERF in front of God and everybody.

I'd avoid the DOWs focused beam and your theory about that being a risk to nearby electronics makes a lot of sense to me.
good point about the cell phone and any equipment plugged into antenna - last month I was zapped when lightening struck my cells trucker antenna and went to my cell phone on my lap - wasn't a huge jolt because my blue jeans had me insulated (luckily)
YEA, maybe the old time farmers had it right when they dragged a chain behind their trucks, as I recall.
Originally posted by cdcollura

Is this a radar vehicle, or is it a type of HERF (High Energy RF) beam generator - Maybe to warm an RFD to prevent (or hopefully not, enhance) tornado formation? I think it is the latter.

LANL does a lot of lightning sferics research. My guess is that you ran into a mobile array truck or something. The faraday cage was likely to ensure that all the electronic crap running inside the cage didn't interfere with the sferic measurments being made outside of the cage. The "nuclear containment" thing beats me.

It's also possible that the truck was a radiological plume dectector operating for DOE. I suppose they move radiological monitoring units to and fro as intelligence dictates. You said it was in spring of 2002; Lord knows the country was pretty much freaking out back then.

But I'd guess the former.