Scientists recorded “massive” lightning in May 2018, flying over a thunderstorm in Oklahoma. But this was not just any lightning.
Every time we think of this powerful force of nature, we envision cracks of light splitting the sky, shooting huge amounts of electricity into the surrounding atmosphere, which cracks into the ground each time it hits it.
However, this lightning bolt shot the other way, up from the clouds, hitting the stratosphere in a tremendous blue “jet” of electricity.
This lightning bolt was so powerful that it carried 100 times more charge than an average storm bolt, reaching a whopping 80 kilometers into the air, very close to the official limit of outer space.
And while it wasn’t the first of its kind to be observed, it turned out to be twice as powerful as the next, according to a press release from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). And even today they remain a bit of a mystery to scientists, due in large part to their rarity.
Mapped for the first time
Now, the gigantic supercharged lightning jets have been mapped for the first time in a study published in the journal Science Advances. According to lead author Levi Boggs, a scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the researchers created a three-dimensional map of the Oklahoma jet.
The result gives us new details about this strange phenomenon, which should contribute to a better understanding of how and why it occurs.
“We were able to map this gigantic jet in three dimensions with very high-quality data,” Boggs said. “We were able to see very high frequency (VHF) sources above the cloud top, which had not been seen before with this level of detail. Using satellite and radar data, we were able to tell where the very hot leading part was of downloading above the cloud,” he added.
As the Oklahoma jet emerged from the top of the cloud, the researchers detected multiple very high frequency (VHF) radio sources at an altitude of 22-45 km, as well as simultaneous optical emissions near the top of the cloud. at an altitude of 15-20 km.
streamers and leaders
This indicates that the VHF sources were produced by small structures at the tip of the lightning called streamers, 200 degree Celsius plasma strips, and that the discharge activity of the streamers can reach all the way from the top of the cloud to the ionosphere, according to the study.
In addition to these small streamers, according to the new observations, the strongest electrical currents came from “leaders,” much hotter sections that can reach temperatures above 4,400 degrees Celsius.
Although the present study gives greater insight into the structures of these gigantic jets, especially above the cloud line, there is still much we do not know about the phenomenon.
We don’t know why the jet shoots off into space to begin with, when most of the rays are directed downwards, or sideways. The researchers think there may be something stopping the lightning from traveling down or into other clouds.
Although the Oklahoma storm was not the usual type associated with jets, since it occurred at high latitudes, rather than in the tropics, and occurred at an unusual time of year, it could provide a clue in this case. Very few descending rays were observed before the release of the giant jet.
“For whatever reason, there is usually a suppression of cloud-to-ground discharges,” Boggs explained.
“There’s a buildup of negative charge, and so we think that the conditions at the top of the storm weaken the top layer of charge, which is usually positive. In the absence of the lightning discharges we normally see, the giant jet can relieve the buildup.” of excess negative charge in the cloud.”
Boggs and his colleagues are now investigating whether these rare events could affect the operations of satellites in low Earth orbit.
Edited by Felipe Espinosa Wang.