Solar wind causes sparks to fly
You may have noticed a bit of a splash in the press last Thursday, when I and my co-authors at the University of Reading had a study published showing that the solar wind appears to affect lightning rates over Europe. If you are interested, you can download the paper here;
or, if you don’t fancy wading through a scientific paper, you can see me trying to explain it without waving my arms around too much in a short video, here;
And, if neither of those approaches appeals, you can read on for a short summary of the work (I’m assuming you’re interested otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen to read this blog, right?).
It’s long been thought that cosmic rays (very energetic particles generated throughout the galaxy, accelerated on shock-fronts created by supernova explosions) could be responsible for causing electrically charged clouds to discharge to ground in the form of lightning. As the cosmic rays fall through the atmosphere, the argument goes, they ionise the air, free electrons get accelerated further by the electric field present in the cloud and a runaway breakdown of air results, ending in a lightning flash.
What does the Sun have to do with this? Well, the Sun is an active star with an eleven year solar cycle. The solar wind drags the solar magnetic field into space where it shields the Earth from some of the cosmic rays. When the Sun is active, the solar magnetic field around Earth is stronger and we see fewer cosmic rays reaching the ground. There is also evidence that there is less lighting at these times. So that’s the long-term view, but what happens over shorter timescales?
While you can use solar storms, or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) as they are known, with their enhanced magnetic fields, to look for short-term enhancements of the interplanetary magnetic field, relatively few events travel Earthwards to make a statistical survey conclusive. Instead, we looked at fast solar wind streams. While these produce a smaller depletion in cosmic ray flux (around 1%) compared with CMEs (around 10%) they co-rotate with the Sun and so wash past Earth at regular intervals. We were expecting therefore to see a reduction in lighting but instead we saw that the lightning rates went up (there is a moral here; never try to anticipate the result of an experiment!). The answer, we think, lies with ‘solar energetic particles’ that are accelerated ahead of the solar wind stream, like surfers on a huge wave. While these do not reach the energies of cosmic rays, it is likely that they nevertheless are able to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere to the height of thunder clouds where they presumably do a similar job to that thought to be done by cosmic rays in initiating lightning.
There’s loads more work to do in order to fully understand where these particles end up and how they influence lightning but if we can understand this effect, there is the tantalising possibility that we could use our observations of solar wind streams from space to forecast the severity of lightning events several weeks in advance. With around 24,000 lightning associated deaths occurring worldwide every year, anything we can do to predict the severity of lightning in advance has to be useful, doesn’t it?
While all this has been going on, we have been analysing the Stormwatch data too, and it’s been very informative. More on these results soon.
Thanks again for your enthusiasm and time, keep clicking! (don’t forget Trace It!)