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Indian Scientists Measure 1.3-Billion-Volt Thunderstorm, the Strongest on Record



Lightning (not the one measured in this study) seen from the International Space Station beyond the Senegal-Mali border.
Photo: NASA / ISS 16 (Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists in India observed the highest-temporal tension ever documented with the help of a subatomic particle of which we don't hear much: the muon .

Researchers manage the GRAPES-3 telescope, which measures muons, particles that are similar to electrons but heavier. In particular, the muV telescope of the PeV EnergieS Phase-3 (GRAPES-3) muon telescope measures high-energy particles from space called cosmic rays. Usually it collects 2.5 million muons per minute, mapped on a 13 by 13 grid across the sky. But during storms, it undergoes rapid changes in the amount of muons it receives. The GRAPES-3 researchers added the electric field monitors to the experiment and devised a way to transform these muon fluctuations into measures of the voltage of passing storms.

A storm on 1 December 2014 resulted in a relatively huge 2% decrease in the amount of muons the experiment received. According to their methods, published in Physical Review Letters, this would amount to an electrical potential of 1.3 billion volts in thunder. This does not refer to a single lightning strike, but rather to the strength of the electric field caused by positively charged molecules of water carried by the convection to the top of the cloud while the negatively charged ice remains lower. For comparison, most lightning strikes have 100 million volts of electrical potential between their ends. The subway tracks carry less than 1,000 volts.

That voltage measurement is 10 times higher than the previous most powerful storm observed on Earth. Storms with these forces may underlie some of the other high-energy phenomena we have covered, such as gamma-ray bursts from the earth.

It is important to emphasize that the models are not always accurate and require human hypotheses. Michael Cherry, professor of physics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, told the scientific journal Physics that it was a unique but indirect way to measure electrical fields in thunderstorms and that the assumptions used in the analysis may not be applicable to all storms. He suggested that balloons or drones could be used to make measurements that refine the model.

But this mega measurement could help explain an important mystery. We have reported that the satellites have measured terrestrial gamma-ray bursts, or gamma-ray bolts. Storms are assumed to cause these TGFs, but no storms strong enough to generate gamma rays observed from experiments like the AGILE satellite have been recorded. 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 were to download that electricity near you, well, you would die in more than one way.


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