Caitlyn Talks Science: Detecting the strength of lightening strikes?


With summer fast approaching, thunderstorms are about to become a regular occurrence once again, especially in Florida. Lightning, the result of these storms, in many aspects is an enigma, but new research out of the Netherlands found that cosmic rays may pave the way to uncovering some of those mysteries, specifically relating to the strength of the actual bolt.

Cosmic rays constantly beam down into the atmosphere, colliding into atoms and creating new waves of particles. A new finding in earth space science concluded that, in a single storm, the structure and electric field strength was 50,000 volts per meter. The cosmic ray detects this data through a relationship between the rays and electrons.

Electrons from the waves of cosmic ray particles release radio waves, which, in fair weather, react normally with the Earth’s magnetic fields to instigate predictable polarization. However, during thunderstorms, the cloud’s electric fields build unique signatures of polarization with the radio waves due to the reflection off the electrons.

LOFAR, the observatory in the Netherlands that conducted the experiment, measured the electrons and their polarization through particle detectors and small antennas. Published in the April edition of “Physical Review Letters,” the research adds to the hypothesis that cosmic rays may be the cause of lightning bolts by actuating the spark.

Current research methods, such as balloons and airplanes, are inadequate for acquiring that kind of information from the thundercloud because they are difficult to control in the storm conditions and may actually trigger the lightning. Using this research as a jumping off point, and by comparing the timing of lightning and cosmic ray cascades, co-author Pim Schellart plans to explore the connection between cosmic rays, which could be sectioning off conductive channels in the atmosphere, and the formation of lightning.


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