Volume: 02, Issue: 13 07/21/2004 
Multiple cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning strokes caught using time-lapse photography during a night-time thunderstorm. Photo courtesy NOAA/OAR/ERL/NSSL.
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Lightning strikes near the launch pad of STS-8 in 1983. Photo courtesy NASA/JSC.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
Chasing the Storm
Satellites and Radar Track Devastating Storms
Aircraft Hunt for Weather Clues
Enhance Your Storm Experience
Chase Storms in Your Classroom

Scientist Sees Lightning like Superman

Florida Tech physicist Joseph Dwyer would be the first to admit that he’s more Clark Kent than Superman. But the National Science Foundation CAREER award-winner is leading a group of scientists in studying lightning using X-Ray detectors. In so doing, they’ve learned how lightning might look to the Man of Steel and, more importantly, learned that lightning is much more complex than once thought.

Dwyer and researchers from Florida Tech’s Department of Physics and Space Sciences and the University of Florida’s International Center for Lightning Research and Testing are the first to use X-ray detectors and rocket-triggered lightning to study nature’s fantastic light show. They discovered lightning flickers in X-rays just as in visible light, but 10,000 times faster. Their research is published in the April issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

“This is remarkable when you consider that a couple years ago, no one knew that X-rays were even emitted during lightning strikes,” Dwyer said. “Now we’re actually looking at lightning with X-rays, which allows us to see it in a brand new way.”

In the study, X-rays were produced in bright bursts about one millionth of a second apart. As a reference, one could imagine that, viewed in X-rays, a lightning strike would look like a series of flashes descending from the cloud, much like flashbulbs popping around the stadium during a Super Bowl kickoff.

Further surprising to the scientists are the X-rays’ energies. According to Dwyer, measurements taken of the energies of the X-rays proved they emitted roughly twice as much energy as would be found in a typical chest X-ray.

Scientists will continue to study the source of lightning’s X-rays and what the effects are in both the atmosphere and to anyone on the ground near a strike.

“We are learning that many of our old ideas about lightning were wrong, and that’s what makes this work so exciting,” Dwyer said.

For more information, visit http://pss.fit.edu/gpl/index.html .

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