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Indian scientists measure 1.3 billion-volt thunderstorm, the strongest at record level

A scathing path (not the one measured in this study) seen from the international space station across the border between Senegal and Mali.
Photo: NASA / ISS 16 (Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists in India observed the thunderstorm with the highest tension ever documented using a subatomic particle that you might not hear much about: the muon.

The researchers work with the GRAPES-3 telescope, which measures muons, particles that resemble electrons but are heavier. In particular, the Gamma Ray astronomy on PeV EnergieS Phase-3 (GRAPES-3) muon-telescope measures high-energy particles from space, which are called cosmic rays. It usually takes 2.5 million muons per minute, mapped on a 13-by-13 grid in the sky. But during thunderstorms it experiences rapid changes in the amount of muons it receives. The GRAPES-3 researchers added electric field monitors to the experiment and devised a way to convert these muon fluctuations into measurements of the voltage of passing storms.

A storm on December 1, 2014 led to a relatively huge 2 percent decrease in the number of muons that the experiment received. According to their methods, published in Physical Review Letters, this would be equivalent to an electrical potential of 1.3 billion volts in the bullhead. This does not refer to a single lightning bolt, but rather to the strength of the electric field caused by positively charged water molecules carried by convection to the top of the cloud, while negatively charged ice remains lower. For comparison: most lightning bolts have 100 million volts of electrical potential between their ends. Subway tracks contain less than 1000 volts.

This voltage measurement is 10 times higher than the previous most powerful observed storm on earth. Storms with these strengths may be behind some of the other high-energy phenomena that we have discussed, such as terrestrial gamma-rays.

It is important to point out that models are not always accurate and require human assumptions. Michael Cherry, a physics professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, told the Physics science publication that it was a unique but indirect way to measure the electrical fields in thunderstorms, and the assumptions used in the analysis may not apply on every storm. He suggested that balloons or drones can be used to perform measurements that refine the model.

But this mega-measurement can help explain an important mystery. We have reported that satellites have measured terrestrial gamma rays or gamma rays. Storms are thought to cause these TGFs, but no thunderstorms have been recorded that are strong enough to generate the gamma radiation observed by experiments such as the AGILE satellite. But 1.3 billion volts would certainly be strong enough.

Provided the model is accurate, this would be the largest voltage ever measured in a thundercloud. And if the cloud would discharge that electricity in your neighborhood, well, you would die in more than one way.

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