April 11, 2013

I WAS EXPECTING AN EARTH-SHATTERING KABOOM: Thunderstorms contain ‘dark lightning,’ invisible pulses of powerful radiation.

Scientists recently discovered something mind-bending about lightning: Sometimes its flashes are invisible, just sudden pulses of unexpectedly powerful radiation. It’s what Joseph Dwyer, a lightning researcher at the Florida Institute of Technology, has termed dark lightning. Unknown to Franklin but now clear to a growing roster of lightning researchers and astronomers is that along with bright thunderbolts, thunderstorms unleash sprays of X-rays and even intense bursts of gamma rays, a form of radiation normally associated with such cosmic spectacles as collapsing stars. The radiation in these invisible blasts can carry a million times as much energy as the radiation in visible lightning, but that energy dissipates quickly in all directions rather than remaining in a stiletto-like lightning bolt.

Dark lightning appears sometimes to compete with normal lightning as a way for thunderstorms to vent the electrical energy that gets pent up inside their roiling interiors, Dwyer says. Unlike with regular lightning, though, people struck by dark lightning, most likely while flying in an airplane, would not get hurt. But according to Dwyer’s calculations, they might receive in an instant the maximum safe lifetime dose of ionizing radiation — the kind that wreaks the most havoc on the human body.

I wonder if the mechanism is related to that by which Scotch tape creates X-rays? Interestingly, pilots have reported all sorts of strange sights on the tops of thunderstorms that meteorologists for years pooh-poohed, but science keeps finding evidence that there really are weird things going on there.

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