illustration by Ping Zhu

Accidental Weatherman

When Raúl Padrón notices tiny crackles of electricity dancing on the telephone lines, he smiles. By then, the midday sky has darkened ominously over El Alto de Pipe, a 5,700-foot-high mountain near Caracas, Venezuela, where Padrón’s structural biology lab is located. Pelting rain and startling thunderclaps will follow, and he knows chances are good he’ll be plunged into darkness when lightning knocks out power to the entire plateau.

The quiet panic Padrón once felt as these massive storms descended—threatening $500,000 of fragile research instruments inside his lab—has given way to a satisfying sense of control. Previously at the mercy of his own senses to predict the weather, the former HHMI international research scholar has become the accidental instigator of a network of weather stations and lightning detectors in Venezuela that have saved his own equipment (and sanity) and effectively, if unofficially, filled in the gaps of existing forecasting systems in the region.

Now that they have advance warning of impending storms, Padrón´s collaborators have time to cut power to their cryoelectron microscope at the Center of Structural Biology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC). Its million-times-magnified images help him delve into the molecular basis of muscle relaxation and activation. The equipment is high maintenance: the microscope and related accessories—the size of a small car—are housed in a 30 ×30-foot room located on the ground floor to minimize vibrations.

Because power surges can damage the microscope’s electronic circuits, lightning strikes can be financially painful. Repairs to the instrument’s electronic motherboard after one incident cost $8,000, a headache compounded by Venezuelan customs laws that can tie up equipment returns for many months.

After Padrón read up on meteorology, it took him surprisingly little time and effort—only a few days—to devise two homemade weather stations and lightning detectors from easily obtained items. Set up at IVIC and Padrón’s nearby home, the detectors anticipate oncoming lightning, while the stations measure temperature, air pressure, wind direction, and rainfall. When word spread of the ability of his $1,000 assemblages to predict heavy weather, volunteers lined up to buy equipment and install other stations across Venezuela. Today, more than a dozen exist, with a companion website that automatically posts hourly meteorological data.

Padrón couldn’t have predicted how interest in his venture would snowball. He’s gone on to build a lightning detector network south of IVIC near Los Altos Mirandinos, has been a speaker at meteorological society meetings, and is teaming up with a local engineer to establish a computer server offering longer-term forecasts around Venezuela, the Caribbean, and the northern coast of South America.

“It became like a second career,” says Padrón. “There were many times I said to myself, ‘This wasn’t the science I wanted to do!’ But it’s very pleasing because wow, this came from something I started.” Several students at IVIC, which created a Unit of Meteorology based on Padrón’s efforts, now maintain the weather stations, and one is in New York City studying for his Ph.D. in meteorology.

“This was necessary for my passion, a requirement to do my work,” he says. “You work on it alone, and then it grows and takes on a life of its own. It doesn’t need me now—it belongs to everybody.”