Researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology’s Department of Physics and Space Science have developed a new model of exactly how terrestrial thunderstorms manage to produce powerful bursts of gamma-rays.
Scientists have known for almost a decade that thunderstorms are capable of generating brief but powerful bursts of gamma-rays called Terrestrial Gamma-Ray Flashes (TGFs). These flashes of gamma-rays are so bright they can blind instruments many hundreds of miles away in outer space.
Because TGFs can originate near the same altitudes at which commercial aircraft routinely fly, scientists have been trying to determine whether or not TGFs present a radiation hazard to individuals in aircraft.
Until recently, the work to answer that question was hampered by a poor understanding of exactly how these gamma-rays are generated by thunderstorms, with initial dose estimates ranging from not-so-safe to downright scary.
Now, the team has developed a promising physics-based model of exactly how thunderstorms manage to produce high-energy radiation.
According to the model, thunderstorms can sometimes produce an exotic kind of electrical breakdown that involves high-energy electrons and their anti-matter equivalent called positrons.
The interplay between the electrons and positrons causes an explosive growth in the number of these high-energy particles, emitting the observed flash of gamma-rays while rapidly discharging the thundercloud, sometimes even faster than normal lightning. Even though copious gamma-rays are emitted by this process, very little visible light is produced, creating a kind of electrical breakdown within the storms called ‘dark lightning.’
Recent modeling work of dark lightning shows that it can explain many of the observed properties of TGFs. The model also calculates the radiation doses received by individuals inside aircraft that happen to be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Near the tops of the storms, for the types of gamma-ray flashes that can be seen from space, the radiation doses are equivalent to about 10 chest X-rays, or about the same radiation people would receive from natural background sources over the course of a year.
“However, near the middle of the storms, the radiation dose could be about 10 times larger, comparable to some of the largest doses received during medical procedures and roughly equal to a full-body CT scan,” said study leader Prof Joseph Dwyer, who with colleagues reported the findings at the General Assembly 2013 of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, on April 10.
“Although airline pilots already do their best to avoid thunderstorms, occasionally aircraft do end up inside electrified storms. On rare occasions, according to the model calculation, it may be possible that hundreds of people, without knowing it, may be simultaneously receiving a sizable dose of radiation from dark lightning.”
Bibliographic information: Joseph Dwyer et al. 2013. Modeling the radiation doses from terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. Geophysical Research Abstracts, vol. 15, EGU2013-3231