Science & Technology

In thunder, lightning, or... Gamma rays may warn you of the next hurlyburly

Radiation sensors can predict lightning within 10 minutes and around 2 kilometers of where they happen

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 26 June 2019

Gamma rays along with thunderclouds may help predict lightning strikes, according to a new research.

It has been known for some time that thunderstorms can bring in radiation. There can be weak gamma-ray glows from thunderclouds before lightning bolts and accompanying gamma-ray flashes in some conditions, according to Yuuki Wada of University of Tokyo.

Gamma-ray associated with thunderclouds are of two types:

  • Gamma-ray glows — weak emissions that last about a minute
  • Short-lived terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) — occur as lightning strikes and are more intense than glows

Wada, a graduate student, and his colleagues set up radiation monitors to detect such radiation from sky in Kanazawa of Ishikawa prefecture. The sensors were developed using technology from space-based satellite observatories.

The monitors detected a simultaneous TGF and lightning strike as well as a gamma-ray glow in the Kanazawa area — all at the same time. The glow “abruptly disappeared” with the lightning, Wada said. “We can say conclusively the events are intimately connected and this is the first time this connection has been observed,” he added.

But, since gamma-ray flashes emit radiation that is nearly one-tenth the level from a typical medical X-ray, the researchers now wannt to speculate whether gamma-ray glows may be causing lightning. 

 “… With sufficient sensor data, we may be able to predict lightning strikes within about 10 minutes of them happening and within around 2 kilometers of where they happen,” Wada claimed. The team plans to install more sensors for this.

A team of researchers in France are collaborating on a project to launch a dedicated satellite to detect worldwide lightning observations from space.

“Forever, people have seen lightning and heard thunder. These were the ways we could experience this power of nature,” Wada said.

“With the discovery of electromagnetism, scientists learned to see lightning with radio receivers. But now we can observe lightning in gamma rays-ionising radiation. It’s like having four eyes to study the phenomena,” Wada added.

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