May 15, 2014 5:18 pm
Updated: May 15, 2014 5:28 pm

Solar wind linked to increased lightning activity: study


Watch the video above: Researcher Chris Scott explains how the sun and lightning are linked.

TORONTO – A new study out from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom has found new evidence linking increased lightning activity here on Earth to particles from the sun that travel along the solar wind.

READ MORE: How solar storms could leave us in the dark

The sun rotates once about every 27 days. Our star is very active, and constantly emits particles into space. It also has a cycle that occurs about once every 11 years. During that time, the sun’s magnetic field can become unstable and more active, producing more sunspots and solar flares. These particles travel along the solar wind, which extend to the furthest reaches of our solar system.

The study found that after a solar wind arrived there was an average of 422 lightning strikes across the U.K. in the following 40 days, compared to an average of 321 lightning strikes in the 40 days before the arrival of the solar wind. The rate of lightning strikes peaked between 12 and 18 days after the arrival of the solar wind.

The particles from an X1 solar flare strikes satellite.


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“It’s doing one of two things: it’s either increasing the number of lightning strikes, or it’s increasing their intensity,” Chris Scott, lead author of the study told Global News. “And that’s something we have to investigate further.”

Scott, a space scientist with the University of Reading, also works on NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO).

Though the reason for the increased activity isn’t fully understood, Scott hopes that, with further study, it will help better predict potentially dangerous thunderstorms.

“Anything that modulates the strength or the frequency of lightning has got to be useful to be able to forecast,” he said. “Lighting kills something like 24,000 people worldwide every year. So it’s a significant hazard.

“If we can do anything to forecast the severity of storms, I’d say that has to be useful.”

The study used data from the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft, which measures the solar wind. It also collected data from the United Kingdom’s lightning detection network during the period of 2000 to 2005.

Scott expects to further study the phenomenon in other parts of the world.

READ MORE: WATCH–Powerful solar flare captured by four space telescopes”

“As with all scientific work, you answer one question and you raise about six more,” he said.

“It would be interesting to see if we saw a similar effect in the tropics, over Africa and South America where there are the really big tropical storms,” Scott said.

“It’s possible that we won’t really see such a big effect there, because those storms are nearer the equator and these particles have to travel through more of Earth’s magnetic field to get there, so you might need to have much stronger events in order to see an effect there.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on May 15.

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