America's North Shore Journal

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Hurricanes, gamma rays and antimatter

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How much energy does a hurricane have? A lot. No, seriously, a whole lot. Enough energy, it would seem that such storms can rival the most advanced particle colliders and produce both gamma rays and antimatter.

In the early 1990s, scientists first began to observe terrestrial gamma-ray flashs (TGFs) originating on Earth. Instruments sent into space to measure gamma radiation and the emissions from space were detecting flashes of gamma rays from the plant below. In 2014, one of these TGFs were detected from Hurricane Julio, a storm then raging in the eastern Pacific.

This was just a part of the picture. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth. Like the huge thunderstorms that form a hurricane. A stream of positrons impacted the telescope from Hurricane Julio.

NASA defines gamma rays this way:

Gamma rays have the smallest wavelengths and the most energy of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum. They are produced by the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe, such as neutron stars and pulsars, supernova explosions, and regions around black holes. On Earth, gamma waves are generated by nuclear explosions, lightning, and the less dramatic activity of radioactive decay.

Supernovas, black holes and terrestrial lightning.

But… a TGF does not require the power of a neutron star or black hole. Discovery reports that thousands of gamma ray bursts occur every day around the world. The size or strength of the thunderstorm does not matter.

The EPA says that gamma rays are generated when “the nucleus of a radioactive atom has too much energy. It often follows the emission of a beta particle.” However, the Discovery article posits another means.

The bursts are caused by lightning that stays within the storm cloud. Under the right conditions, the upper part of an interior lightning bolt disrupts the storm’s electric field in such a way that an avalanche of electrons surges upward at high speed. When these fast-moving electrons are deflected by air molecules, they emit gamma rays.

Whatever the cause, the notion that lightning is generating antimatter or gamma radiation is unsettling. These bursts, fortunately, appear to go straight up. The risk, if any, would be to aircraft overflying a thunderstorm at 40,000 feet or higher, and to satellites overhead. Few non-military aircraft would attempt both this altitude and overflying a thunderstorm.

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