Struck by lightning

Israeli professor Colin Price has transformed a fascination with severe weather patterns into research that could lead to practical products to protect individuals and industries from harm.   Space weather, sun storms, lightning strikes – these are all in a …

Israeli professor Colin Price has transformed a fascination with severe weather patterns into research that could lead to practical products to protect individuals and industries from harm.

 

Colin-Price

Space weather, sun storms, lightning strikes – these are all in a day’s work for Israeli researcher Colin Price.

The serene landscapes that Prof. Colin Price paints for pleasure contrast starkly with the violent weather he studies for a living. Lightning strikes, not pastoral beaches, provide the backdrop for his groundbreaking research.

Price, head of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science, tells ISRAEL21c that his interest in natural hazards – forest fires, volcanoes, floods – was sparked by his high school geology teacher in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“I started out in both physics and geology and thought I’d go into oil exploration and get rich,” he recalls with a laugh. “That didn’t work out.”

When he began his master’s degree at Tel Aviv University, there was no research project available on oil exploration. Price took on a project studying acid rain instead, and that led to a fascination with severe weather patterns.

Making waves in space weather

His research has made waves in “space weather,” a new scientific field that focuses on the interaction between the sun and the Earth’s environment. In addition, he coordinates the Flash Project, an alliance among five European countries that examines lightning patterns and their effect on climatic events including flash floods.

Based in Israel, Price enjoys an advantage that American scientists don’t share: “We have a link with the European Union in a research framework,” he explains. “The Israeli government puts money in a ‘pot’ and we can apply to tap into it for projects in collaboration with European scientists.”

Price, who not only paints, bikes and hikes but has also run two marathons, is keenly interested in a weather satellite to be launched in 2015. Data from the satellite on atmospheric conditions in Europe and Africa could help Price measure the effect of lightning on areas ranging from aviation to forest fires. Then, he could develop educational and practical products to keep individuals and industries from harm.

For example, if an electric company had a tool to pinpoint in advance where lightning would strike, it could divert power to safe zones in the network and also fix damage more quickly afterward, thus saving millions of dollars in lost productivity due to blackouts.

In the meantime, Price is collecting data along the Dead Sea Rift to see whether electromagnetic irregularities in the atmosphere can help predict coming earthquakes, and he is monitoring sun storms to study their impact on the Earth.

Ruing the brain drain

During semester breaks, Price presents papers and lectures in places like Hungary, Barcelona and Brussels, as well as Toronto, Montreal and New York. He bumps into plenty of Israeli expatriates on his North American travels.

“The brain drain is a real problem,” says Price ruefully. “There are more than 1,000 Israeli research scientists living in the US and Canada – many of whom would return if we had a research institute such as NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I have on my desk five or six CVs of people wanting to come back, but there’s no place for them.”

Price himself was able to return to Tel Aviv in 1995, after several years in America, only because a slot opened when a professor in his department retired. It was not money that drew him – salaries are lower in Israel – but a strong sense of Zionism and a desire to raise his three daughters in the country to which he immigrated at age 20. “There are certain things you can’t put a price on,” he declares.

The scientist’s father volunteered as a physician in the nascent Israeli army during the 1948 War of Independence. He and his wife determined to move to Israel after Colin, their youngest child, finished high school in 1979. After one year at the University of Witwatersrand, Colin joined them and began studying geophysics at Tel Aviv University.

In 1988, he and his attorney wife, Nurit, moved to New York with their firstborn, Avital. Price earned a doctorate in atmospheric sciences through Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. His research focused on global climate change and lightning activity. In 1993, he began a two-year post-doctorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where his daughter Leor was born. Maiyan, now an eighth-grader, arrived after the family’s 1995 return.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.