Adding seven crucial minutes of warning
"The average lead time on tornadoes is currently about 13 minutes," Schultz noted. "The average lead time using lightning jump to severe weather is about 20.5 minutes."
That seven and a half minutes of extra warning could save lives.
Earth Networks' Marshall is also focused on improving the time between warnings and the severe weather to follow. In January, his team presented the results of a study using its lightning network to issue severe weather warnings at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting.
Using data from the 2011 hurricane season, team members found that the tornado warnings issued from their system based on the total lightning network resulted in warning lead times of 27 minutes on average.
NOAA's MacDonald is eager to test Earth Network's system with the National Weather Service. He's excited about a program the company has developed to turn the lightning pulses it senses into predictions of where severe weather is going to occur, a sort of parallel to the National Weather Service's warning system.
MacDonald hopes to run a trial with the National Weather Service where they integrate that program into a number of weather forecasting centers, although he is waiting for project funding.
"They have software that will determine how much lightning is occurring and which direction it's moving, and then they in effect make a forecast of the areas that are threatened in the next couple hours. So that was the product that we wanted to test out," he said.
Some Weather Service offices have already had the chance to test out lightning data as a resource for severe weather prediction. That's because they have access to local lightning monitoring networks.
One such network is in Huntsville, Ala.
Brian Carcione, the science and operations officer at the National Weather Service station in Huntsville, said his office has had access to lightning data for nearly a decade, but it has taken the office a while to figure out just how it fits into its forecasts.
"I personally think it has the potential to be a game changer, but it's very different from what we are used to," Carcione said. "As forecasters, we are getting more and more data that we have to sift through ... so one thing being discussed already is what's the most efficient way to get this information in front of the forecaster so that it helps them make the decision better."
It's not as simple as just giving forecasters the lightning data, explained Kristin Calhoun, a research scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory and the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies in Oklahoma.
Forecasters already have to sift through a huge volume of information when making their decisions and issuing things like tornado and severe weather warnings.
That's why Calhoun took Schultz's algorithm and put it into the hands of meteorologists at the Hazardous Weather Testbed. There, she got their feedback on the best way to present them with that information.
"What we are developing right now is the visualization of the lightning jump. Some forecasters like to be alerted; a bell will go off or a banner will come up. Some forecasters like to see it as a grid," Calhoun said.
Calhoun and Carcione stressed that lightning jump information is not a tool to be used in isolation, but in combination with the other data forecasters use, like Doppler radar, it has the potential to give them an extra edge.
Which storm will be the killer?
"You may be watching a number of storms at the same time, and the lightning can help you figure out that one may be more important or strengthening more than the others," Carcione said.