Lightning & Atmospheric Electricity

Atmospheric electricians study all of the electrical phenomena in the atmosphere. There is lightning from cloud to ground or within clouds, as well as red sprites, blue jets and elves, all electromagnetic phenomena in the upper stratosphere and ionosphere. All of these phenomena leave electromagnetic signatures. Lightning alone creates large changes in electric fields, magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation (radio waves) at a variety of frequencies. Lightning also produces light and heat, and it seems also to produce X-rays, and perhaps gamma rays.

It is a natural and beautiful application of physics to try to characterize these many signatures of lightning, and to use them to understand this spectacular natural phenomenon. NM Tech’s atmospheric electric program is heavily instrument oriented. Students and faculty develop and deploy new sensors, singly and in networks, to try put all the pieces of lightning and other atmospheric phenomena together.

A key sensor developed at New Mexico Tech is the Lightning Mapping Array, which allows one to visualize, in 3-Dimensions, the development of a lightning flash in the clouds. This ability to “see through” clouds has formed the basis of lots of new work in which we are able to understand questions about lightning that have vexed researchers for nearly a century. Increasingly, it seems lightning is a large spark, and that it follows, with appropriate scaling, the laws governing smaller sparks. Come join us on the exciting journey to figure out how the interaction of ice and rain can lead to huge sparks tens of kilometers long through air, which is normally a very good insulator for electricity.

Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Physics Faculty and Staff with active Atmospheric Electric research programs:

Dr. William P. Winn
Dr. Ken Eack
Dr. Richard Sonnenfeld
Dr. Paul Krehbiel
Dr. William Rison
Dr. Ron Thomas
Dr. Graydon Aulich
Dr. Rene Arechiga
Dr. Harald Edens

Photos by Harald Edens

Check Out:
Ben Franklin in the 21st Century (pdf)New Mexico Tech Lightning Mapping Array 3D animation of Lightning flash over New Mexico near Langmuir Laboratory

NOVA Lightning Experts still aren’t sure what triggers lightning, but they suspect cosmic rays from outer space. Aired October 18, 2005 on PBS.

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

Langmuir Laboratory For Atmospheric Research