It’s all a lie – lightning often does strike twice

  Last updated April 24, 2019 at 9:11 pm


Everything you’ve been told is a lie – lightning does often strike twice or more in the same place. Now scientists know why.

lightning strikes twice

Lightning can follow the same paths as previous strikes. Credit: Iraia Martínez/Flickr

Lightning strikes twice in the same place surprisingly often and now, thanks to a Dutch radio telescope network called the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), scientists have a better idea why.

Lightning strikes when electricity built up in a cloud is strong enough to break through the ionised air. The lightning bolt hits the ground within a fraction of a second after passing through a channel. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, lightning causes up to 10 deaths every year in Australia.

An international team, including from the Australian National University used LOFAR to study the development of lightning flashes in unprecedented detail, and discovered that the negative charges inside a thundercloud are not discharged in a single flash.

Some are stored inside structures the researchers have called needles, making a repeated discharge to the ground quite possible.

Lightning paths reused

“This finding is in sharp contrast to the present picture, in which the charge flows along plasma channels directly from one part of the cloud to another, or to the ground”, says Olaf Scholten, from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

And it hasn’t been noticed before because there wasn’t equipment powerful enough to do so.

“These needles can have a length of 100 metres and a diameter of less than five metres, and are too small and too short-lived for other lightning detections systems,” says Brian Hare, also from the University of Groningen.

“From these observations we see that a part of the cloud is re-charged, and we can understand why a lightning discharge to the ground may repeat itself a few times,” he says.

“The use of radio waves allows us to look inside the thundercloud, where most of the lightning resides.”

The video shows the development of the lightning in slow motion. In real time, the duration is less than 0.2 seconds and towards the end the discharge, spans about five kilometres in all directions. The bright yellow flashes are the new radio pulses detected, which quickly fade to small white dots to give the sense of the structure. The positively charged lightning channels are seen at the top of the lightning flash, grow upwards, and appear to twinkle because of the newly discovered needles. The negatively charged channels grow downwards, and are seen to grow continuously (they don’t twinkle). Credit: University of Groningen

Studying lightning with a telescope used for the distant universe

LOFAR comprises thousands of simple antennas that are spread over Northern Europe but connected with a central computer through fibre-optic cables, allowing them to operate as a single entity. It is used primarily for radio astronomy observations, but the frequency range of the antennas also makes it suitable for lightning research, because discharges produce bursts in the very high frequency (VHF) radio band.

In the recent study, the researchers used only LOFAR stations in The Netherlands, covering an area of 3200 square kilometres, and analysed the raw time-traces – which are accurate to one nanosecond – measured in the 30-to-80 megaherz (MHz) band.

They developed a new algorithm for the data, allowing them to visualise the VHF radio emissions from two lightning flashes. The antenna array and the very precise time stamp on all the data allowed them to pinpoint the emission sources with unprecedented resolution.

The results, they say, clearly show the occurrence of a break in the discharge channel, at a location where needles formed. These appear to discharge negative charges from the main channel, which subsequently re-enter the cloud.

The reduction of charges in the channel causes the break. However, once the charge in the cloud becomes high enough again, the flow through the channel is restored, leading to a second discharge of lightning. By this mechanism, lightning will strike in the same area repeatedly.

“The VHF emissions along the positive channel are due to rather regularly repeated discharges along previously formed side channels, the needles,” says Scholten. “These needles appear to drain the charges in a pulsed manner.”

The findings are published in a paper in the journal Nature.


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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is an Adelaide-based freelance writer who has worked as a reporter, editor and producer for print, electronic and online media and in a range of corporate and government communications roles. He collaborated closely with academics on university campuses for more than a decade and lived to tell the tale.

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