Researchers at Brazil's space institute discover why lightning branches and flickers

January 13, 2021

Researchers at Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE), in partnership with colleagues in the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa, have recorded for the first time the formation and branching of luminous structures by lightning strikes.

Analyzing images captured by a super slow motion camera, they discovered why lightning strikes bifurcate and sometimes then form luminous structures interpreted by the human eye as flickers.

The study was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation - FAPESP. An article outlining its results is published in Scientific Reports.

"We managed to obtain the first optical observation of these phenomena and find a possible explanation for branching and flickering," Marcelo Magalhães Fares Saba, principal investigator for the project, told. Saba is a researcher in INPE's Atmospheric Electricity Group (ELAT).

The researchers used ultra high speed digital video cameras to record more than 200 upward flashes during summer thunderstorms in São Paulo City (Brazil) and Rapid City, South Dakota (USA) between 2008 and 2019. Upward lightning strikes start from the top of a tall building or other ground-based structure and propagate upward to the overlying cloud.

The upward flashes they recorded were triggered by positively charged cloud-to-ground lightning discharges, which are much more common, as described by the same INPE research group in a previous study (read more at: https://agencia.fapesp.br/31947).

"Upward lightning originates at the top of a tower or the lightning conductor on a skyscraper, for example, when the storm's electrical field is disturbed by a cloud-to-ground discharge as far away as 60 kilometers," Saba said.

Although the study conditions were very similar in Brazil and the US, luminous structures were observed in only three upward flashes, recorded in the US. These were formed by a positive leader discharge propagating toward the cloud base.

"The advantage of recording images of upward lightning is that they let us see the entire trajectory of these positive leaders from ground to cloud base. Once inside the cloud, they can no longer be seen," Saba said.

The researchers found that a low-luminosity discharge with a structure resembling a paintbrush sometimes forms at the tip of the positive leader. "We observed that this discharge, often referred to as a corona brush, may change direction, split in two, and define the path of the lightning flash and how it branches," Saba said.

When an upward flash branches successfully, it may proceed to the left or right. When branching fails, the corona brush may give rise to very short segments as bright as the leader itself. These segments first appear milliseconds after the corona brush splits, and pulsate as the leader propagates upward toward the cloud base, the videos show.

"The flickers are recurring failed attempts to start a branch," Saba said, adding that the flickers may explain why multiple lightning discharges are frequent, but more studies are needed to verify this theory.
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About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. You can learn more about FAPESP at http://www.fapesp.br/en and visit FAPESP news agency at http://www.agencia.fapesp.br/en to keep updated with the latest scientific breakthroughs FAPESP helps achieve through its many programs, awards and research centers. You may also subscribe to FAPESP news agency at http://agencia.fapesp.br/subscribe.

Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo

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