Dr Rachel Albrecht

Dr Rachel Albrecht: The lightning researcher who published the definitive ranking of lightning hot spots.

Her work has helped confirm Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo as having the highest concentration of lightning strikes.

During her career she’s travelled thousands of miles from her home, but she’s a shining example of following a path based on a childhood passion.

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Dr Rachel Albrecht has always been fascinated by science and weather. Her grandparents and dad are farmers so weather talk and attempts to forecast it were a constant feature of her childhood. But there were two events in her childhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s which stand out in her memory.

“An egg-sized hail storm at the farm which I vividly remember the hailstones filling up my whole hand, and a F3 tornado that swiped roads and energy towers near my hometown which left us without electricity for one entire week.”

Dr Albrecht was born in June 1979 and grew up in a small town called Indaiatuba, around 100 km from the Brazilian city of São Paulo. In school she was able to start pursuing her aim of working in the field which had interested her so much as a child.

“Maths and physics were my favourite subjects in school, and my dream was to work at NASA (as a scientist, not an astronaut). Several years later, in 2005 when I was already a meteorologist, I witnessed a devastating F3 tornado at my hometown, and up-to-date is still the largest on caught on video in Brazil.”

Dr Albrecht has been involved with field experiments at the tropics since her days at university, studying the effects of pollution on cloud and precipitation for her undergraduate and Masters degrees.

“This research evolved into a deeper will to understand anthropocentric [human activity] effects on cloud microphysics. From cloud microphysics, I naturally migrated to cloud electrification, where lightning is a response from ice particle collisions in the mixed phase of clouds, which, in the Amazon, is modified by urban pollution, biomass burning and deforestation.”

dr rachel albrecht 2

Since then she’s gone to work in the United States; during her PhD she got an offer to work as a Research Associate at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Institute for Climate and

Satellites (CICS) in College Park, Maryland. There she worked for two years at the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) onboard of the new generation of weather satellites. She’s also been a research scientist in Brazil at the Center for Weather and Climate Studies (CPTEC), Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

These days she’s a professor at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of São Paulo.

Career achievements

This research confirmed Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela as having the Highest concentration of lightning strikes, with 233 flashes per km2 every year.

The top 10 locations from their research are:

  • Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
  • Kabara, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Kampene, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Caceres, Colombia
  • Sake, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Daggar, Pakistan
  • El Tarra, Colombia
  • Nguti, Cameroon
  • Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Boende, Democratic Republic of Congo


“I consider myself lucky, no real hurdles where on my way so far. Of course I have applied myself very hard to be where I am now, but I had also have plenty of opportunities that contributed to my career, such as private English classes when I was a teenager and private high school. In Brazil, having access to good education is unfortunately very scarce in public schools and I am lucky that my parents were able to afford it to me.

“If I would pick an obstacle that I had to overcome, it was working in US for two years with no family around. I knew that was essential to have a successful scientific career, to build a network of international collaborations. So, I just faced the challenge, and here I am now.”
Dr Rachel Albrecht plane 2

The future

Dr Albrecht has been very busy and achieved a lot in her career in science so far, but what’s next in store?

“I have several plans, most related to field campaigns along the tropics. As one can tell, being in the field is my passion in science, and, a field experiment in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, the Earth's lightning hotspot, is of course among them in the long run. In the short run, I will keep researching Amazon rainforest and Argentina, the place where most intense storms are observed from satellites. Another near future goal, is to spread the use of lightning and nowcasting.”

Some dazzling lightning records

Dr Albrecht's field of work specialises in one of nature's most spectacular pheomenons.

For instance lightning bolts last for an average of 0.2 seconds, however the Longest lasting lightning flash recorded occurred over south-east France in August 2012 and was a horizontal cloud-to-cloud bolt which lasted  for 7.74 seconds.

Meanwhile the Longest lightning flash spanned a distance of 321 km (199.5 miles) horizontally from Tulsa near the Arkansas/Oklahoma border to the Oklahoma Pandandle above the United States.

And if you're ever unlucky enough to be struck by lightning, spare a thought for Roy Sullivan. He's the only man to have been struck by lightning SEVEN times and holds the record for the Most lightning strikes survived - losing his big toe nail (1942) and eyebrows (1969), having his left shoulder seared (1970), having his hair set on fire (1972), his replacement hair set on fire and legs seared (1973), injuring is ankle (1976) and suffering chest and stomach burns (1977) along the way.

Given a single lightning strike is made up of several 100 million volts (with peak current in the order of 20,000 amps), to survive seven is quite the achievement.

Lightning storms on Earth are also nothing compared to one above Saturn in 2009 which raged for eight whole months in the planet's upper atmosphere. Monitored by the Cassini spacecraft, it's the Longest-lasting lightning storm ever recorded.

Roy Sullivan lightning