Plasmas/Plasma objects/Lightning

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The image shows multiple lightning discharges. Credit: .

Lightning is an atmospheric discharge of electricity, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms.

Lightning theory[edit]

Def. a "flash of light produced by short-duration, high-voltage discharge of electricity within a cloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the earth"[1] is called lightning.

Gamma rays[edit]

The red dots show some of the ~500 terrestrial gamma-ray flashes daily detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope through 2010. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

"A number of observations by space-based telescopes have revealed ... gamma ray emissions ... terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs). These observations pose a challenge to current theories of lightning, especially with the discovery of the clear signatures of antimatter produced in lightning.[2]

A TGF has been linked to an individual lightning stroke occurring within 1.5 ms of the TGF event,[3] proving for the first time that the TGF was of atmospheric origin and associated with lightning strikes.

The Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft, as reported by David Smith of University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, has been observing TGFs at a much higher rate, indicating that these occur about 50 times per day globally (still a very small fraction of the total lightning on the planet). The energy levels recorded exceed 20 MeV. Apparently, the gamma radiation fountains upward from starting points at surprisingly low altitudes in thunderclouds. Steven Cummer, from Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, said, "These are higher energy gamma rays than come from the sun. And yet here they are coming from the kind of terrestrial thunderstorm that we see here all the time." In 2009, the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope in Earth orbit observed an intense burst of gamma rays corresponding to positron annihilations coming out of a storm formation. Scientists wouldn't have been surprised to see a few positrons accompanying any intense gamma ray burst, but the lightning flash detected by Fermi appeared to have produced about 100 trillion positrons. This has been reported by media in January 2011, it is an effect, never considered to happen before.[4]

Plasma objects[edit]

The image shows an example of jellyfish lightning or sprites. Credit: H. H. C. Stenbaek-Nielsen.

"During a thunderstorm, high in the ionosphere, you’ll find an odd variety of lightning that is far above the thunderstorm itself. Jellyfish lightning, also known as sprites, are red flashes of light that last for a few seconds. They can have a wide bell-shaped top and tentacle-like wisps of light at the bottom, resembling a jellyfish."[5]

"In high-speed videos we can see the dynamics of sprite formation and then use that information to model and to reproduce the dynamics."[6]

"These sprites only occur during thunderstorms, though sprites are about three times higher up than storms. [...] the storms are necessary for sprites to occur, they aren’t quite sufficient enough to cause them on their own [...] The tentacle-like tendrils at the bottom were shown to form much faster than the bell-shaped top. [...] localized plasma irregularities can spark the formation of a sprite."[5]

Rocky objects[edit]

A superbolt, more powerful than an ordinary lightning bolt, struck a cornfield near Leland, Illinois, leaving a crater one foot deep, and breaking windows in homes almost a mile away.[7]

Solar winds[edit]

A lightning storm over England is imaged. Credit: Catalin Fatu.

"The sun spits out charged particles that hit our atmosphere two to four days later at 1.5-2.7 million kph, but it does not do so evenly."[8]

"The solar wind is not continuous, it has slow and fast streams. Because the Sun rotates, these streams can be sent out behind each other - so if you have a fast solar wind catching up with a slow solar wind, it causes a concentration to occur."[9]

"The slow phase is composed similarly to the solar corona while fast particles have a composition close to that of the photosphere, the outer layer of the sun that produces the light."[8]

There is "a 31% increase in average lightning strikes over central England (422 to 321) in the 40 days after major solar wind events compared to the days beforehand. Lightning peaked 12-18 days after the wind's arrival. A matching increase in thundery days provided supporting evidence."[8]

"It's unexpected, because these streams of particles bring with them an enhanced magnetic field - and this shields Earth from the very high-energy cosmic rays from outside of the Solar System.”[9]

"The reduction in cosmic rays is only around 1%, but still noticeable. Cosmic rays emitted by supernovae are thought to trigger lighting strikes, and it was expected that the shielding effect of the solar wind would cause a reduction in lightning, rather than an increase."[8]

Sunspot "numbers negatively correlate with thunder days in other parts of the world."[8]

"High speed streams were found to occur after periods when the sun was putting out less light, but sunspot numbers increased. Scott and his fellow authors attribute this to the streams coming from an active region appearing on the eastern side of the sun."[8]

"We propose that these particles, while not having sufficient energies to reach the ground and be detected there, nevertheless electrify the atmosphere as they collide with it, altering the electrical properties of the air and thus influencing the rate or intensity at which lightning occurs."[9]


During the Soviet Venera program, the Venera 11 and Venera 12 probes detected a constant stream of lightning, and Venera 12 recorded a powerful clap of thunder soon after it landed. The European Space Agency's Venus Express recorded abundant lightning in the high atmosphere.[10]


This is a panorama photograph taken during a lightning storm over Bucharest, Romania. Credit: Catalin.Fatu.

Lightning strikes or bolts across the Earth's sky emit X-rays.[11]


Jupiter shows intense X-ray emission associated with auroras in its polar regions (Chandra observatory X-ray image on the left). The accompanying schematic illustrates how Jupiter's unusually frequent and spectacular auroral activity is produced. Observation period: 17 hrs, February 24-26, 2003. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSFC/R.Elsner et al.; Illustration: CXC/M.Weiss.

In the image at right is a diagram describing interaction with the local magnetic field. Jupiter's strong, rapidly rotating magnetic field (light blue lines in the figure) generates strong electric fields in the space around the planet. Charged particles (white dots), "trapped in Jupiter's magnetic field, are continually being accelerated (gold particles) down into the atmosphere above the polar regions, so auroras are almost always active on Jupiter. Electric voltages of about 10 million volts, and currents of 10 million amps - a hundred times greater than the most powerful lightning bolts - are required to explain the auroras at Jupiter's poles, which are a thousand times more powerful than those on Earth. On Earth, auroras are triggered by solar storms of energetic particles, which disturb Earth's magnetic field. As shown by the swept-back appearance in the illustration, gusts of particles from the Sun also distort Jupiter's magnetic field, and on occasion produce auroras."[12]


  1. Lightning can occur as positive to ground strokes and on a clear day.

See also[edit]


  1. "lightning". San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 June 2014. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  2. Signature Of Antimatter Detected In Lightning - Science News
  3. U.S. Inan, S.C. Reising, G.J. Fishman, and J.M. Horack. On the association of terrestrial gamma-ray bursts with lightning and implications for sprites. Geophysical Research Letters, 23(9):1017-20, May 1996. As quoted by Retrieved 2007-03-06.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lisa Winter (May 12, 2014). Origins Of Mysterious "Sprite" Lightning Discovered. IFLScience. Retrieved 2014-08-30.
  6. Jianqi Qin (May 12, 2014). Origins Of Mysterious "Sprite" Lightning Discovered. IFLScience. Retrieved 2014-08-30.
  7. Christopher C. Burt, Extreme Weather: A Guide & Record Book (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), p149
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Stephen Luntz (May 16, 2014). Solar Activity Could Cause Lightning Storms On Earth. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Christ Scott (May 16, 2014). Solar Activity Could Cause Lightning Storms On Earth. Retrieved 2014-08-31.
  10. Venus also zapped by lightning. CNN. 29 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-29.
  11. Newitz, A. (September 2007). "Educated Destruction 101". Popular Science: 61. 
  12. X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSFC/R.Elsner et al.; Illustration: CXC/M.Weiss (March 2, 2005). Jupiter: Chandra Probes High-Voltage Auroras on Jupiter. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Retrieved 2012-07-11.

External links[edit]

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