Research Boosts Understanding of Lightning That Goes Up

Findings in a new research paper from Florida Tech may help us get closer to predicting where a lightning bolt will strike.

The paper, “Thunderstorm charge structures producing gigantic jets,” was published Dec. 27 in Scientific Reports. Levi Boggs, a Ph.D. candidate in the Aerospace, Physics and Space Sciences Department at Florida Tech, was the lead author, with Ningyu Liu, associate professor of the Department of Physics and Space Science Center at the University of New Hampshire and former associate professor of the Department of Physics and Space Sciences at Florida Tech, Jeremy Riousset, assistant professor of planetary sciences, aerospace, physics and space sciences, Steven Lazarus, professor of ocean engineering and marine sciences, Michael Splitt, assistant professor in the College of Aeronautics and Hamid Rassoul, Distinguished University Professor and former dean of the College of Science, as co-authors.

The paper can be found here.

The researchers found that nearly all gigantic jets, a type of lightning that are upward moving electrical discharges that establish a direct path of electrical contact between thundercloud tops and the lower ionosphere, have been found to originate in intense thunderstorms more than 10 miles high. The team also discovered these jets occur during or near the end of a convective “pulse” which corresponds to a period of rapid thunderstorm intensification.

“Right now, it’s really not that well known why lightning strikes in random patterns or why a lightning bolt will strike in a particular place, so this study helps to understand after a lightning bolt leaves the cloud, where that lightning bolt propagates,” Boggs said.

Boggs has investigated gigantic jets since 2015. His research has included analyzing radar and lightning data and three-dimensional lightning simulations. Capturing the gigantic jets has had its challenges.

Florida Tech uses a high-speed camera to capture gigantic jets to learn in detail how they propagate. Extensive cloud cover, like layered clouds seen in a hurricane, adds to the difficulty of getting the images.

Even with the challenges, the team was able to get key data. At the top of the storm, the team discovered ring-like patterns of turbulence that signified a mixing of positive and negative charges believed to be needed for a gigantic jet to occur. The findings ultimately led to the team doing computer simulations to better understand the phenomenon.

“That kind of changed the way we thought about gigantic jets, and that’s one of the focuses of this paper,” Boggs said.

He added, “In the coming years, especially if we get high speed video of these gigantic jets, we should learn a lot about how lightning propagates and where it will strike outside of the cloud.”


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