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Indian scientists measure 1.3 billion volts thunderstorm, the strongest on record



A throat neck (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 highest voltage thunderstorms ever documented using a subatomic particle you may not hear much about: muon.

The researchers use the GRAPES-3 telescope, which measures muons, particles similar to electrons but heavier. Specifically, Gamma Ray Astronomy at PeV EnergieS Phase-3 (GRAPES-3) monitors the telescope's high energy particles from outer space called cosmic rays. It usually picks up 2.5 million muons every minute, mapped on a 13-by-13 grid across the sky. But during thunderstorms, it experiences rapid changes in the amount of muons it receives. The GRAPES-3 scientists added electric field monitors to the experiment and provided a way to turn these muon fluctuations into voltages in storm surges.

A storm on December 1, 2014 led to a relatively huge 2 percent decrease in the amount of muons the experiment received. According to their methods, published in the Physical Review Letters, this would correspond to an electric potential of 1.3 billion volumes in thunderstorms. This does not refer to a single flash bolt but rather 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. The subway tracks have less than 1000 volts.

That voltage measurement is 10 times higher than the previous most powerful observed storm on Earth. Storms with these forces can be behind some of the other hay energy phenomena that we have covered, such as terrestrial gamma-ray lighters.

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 science publication Physics that it was a unique but indirect way of measuring the electric fields in thunderstorms and the assumptions used in the analysis may not apply to every storm. He suggested that balloons or drones could be used to make measurements that refine the model.

But this mega-measurement can help explain an important mystery. We have reported that satellites have been measured terrestrial gamma-ray or gamma-ray bolts. It is believed that storms cause these TGFs, but there have been no thunderstorms on records that are strong enough to generate the gamma rays observed by experiments like the AGILE satellite. But 1.3 billion volts would certainly be strong enough.

If the model is correct, it would be the greatest tension ever measured in a thunderstorm. And if the cloud would release the electricity near you, then you would die in more ways than one.


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