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Science

Large Storms On Earth Are Particle Accelerators 166

Posted by timothy
from the you-bet-they-are dept.
MondoMor writes "Apparently, the atmosphere above Earth's strongest storms acts like a particle accelerator, according to a UC Santa Cruz paper. TGFs (Terrestrial Gamma ray Flashes) may occur as seldom as 50 times a day, 'but the rate could be up to 100 times higher if, as some models indicate, TGFs are emitted as narrowly focused beams that would only be detected when the satellite is directly in their path.' I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space."
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Large Storms On Earth Are Particle Accelerators

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  • by FunWithHeadlines (644929) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @06:51PM (#11731290) Homepage
    ""The idea that the Earth, a fairly small and tame planet, can be an accelerator of particles to ultrarelativistic energies is fascinating to me," said David Smith, an assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz and first author of the paper.

    "The energies we see are as high as those of gamma rays emitted from black holes and neutron stars," Smith said.

    The exact mechanism that accelerates the electron beams to produce TGFs is still uncertain, he said, but it probably involves the build-up of electric charge at the tops of thunder clouds due to lightning discharges, resulting in a powerful electric field between the cloudtops and the ionosphere, the outer layer of Earth's atmosphere.

    "Regardless of the exact mechanism, there is some enormous particle accelerator in the upper atmosphere that is accelerating electrons to these very high energies, so they emit gamma rays when they hit the sparse atoms of the upper atmosphere," Smith said. "What's exciting is that we are now getting data good enough for the theorists to really test their models."

    Cool, huh? It's like having a free, giant, massively powerful particle accelerator for use by scientists, but without having to build a massive building and dealing with constructions costs, red tape, and NIMBY issues.

    "Jenkins! I want to test some data. Run it up the flagpole* and tell me the results."

    * For sufficiently large flagpole, that is. Hey, combine this with the space elevator and you really got something!)

  • Important! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bprime (734645) <fox DOT benjamin AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday February 20, 2005 @06:53PM (#11731308)
    The scientists forgot to mention what the lethal range of these particles is! How are they going to secure funding for next year?

    "If the atmosphere was 200 meters closer to the ground, these particles would trigger a mass extinction."
  • A fingerprint? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:04PM (#11731370)
    It would be interesting to see if these bursts act as a fingerprint of the planet that produces them. Perhaps they could be used to identify other planets with Earth-like atmospheres (or just planets in general...)?
  • Space elevators? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord_Dweomer (648696) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:15PM (#11731428) Homepage
    Just wondering if this would disrupt the operation of a space elevator in any way or harm it. I mean, there's no way you can infinitely keep a storm away from one of those things.

    How would this affect carbon nanotubes?

  • And to the ground (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Viadd (173388) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:25PM (#11731477)
    I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space.

    Although the outward going flashes (first detected by CGRO a decade ago [nasa.gov]) are much stronger, there are also lighting-generated X-rays seen on the ground. [sciam.com]

  • Re:And to the ground (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:45PM (#11731580) Homepage Journal
    The scientists who measured those X-rays were triggering lightning blots by firing rockets with trailing wires into thunderclouds (insurance agent: "And what do you do for a living?"), so their detectors were near the actual lightning strike.

    The detectors had to be near the lightning bolt because air absorbs X-rays surprisingly well. Ditto gamma rays, which are the same thing but at higher energies. More than a few feet of air will block X-rays.

    Some of the early nuclear bomb tests had to measure gamma rays from the reaction, and to do that they built tunnels filled with polyethylene between ground zero and their detectors for the gamma rays to go through.

    Bottom line, don't worry about X-rays from lightning unless you're standing where it strikes, in which case you shouldn't worry about the X-rays anyhow.
  • Re:Sprites ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by calidoscope (312571) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:27PM (#11731853)
    I'd be willing to bet that they are related to Sprites - guessing the potential between the top of the thunderclouds and E-layer of the ionosphere could be tens of millions of volts. The mean free path of the particles may be long enough that they can pick up some significant energy.

    On a related note, in the early 1980's, QST was reporting a very strong correlation between thunderstorm activity and sporadic E-layer propagation. Those reports came to mind when first reading about sprites over ten years later.

  • Hmmm... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lord Kano (13027) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:28PM (#11731854) Homepage Journal
    I wonder if blasts of gamma rays can be to blame for Cancer Clusters that have defied other explanations.

    LK
  • by IroygbivU (534043) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @10:34PM (#11732815)
    It even developed its own sustainable nuclear fission reactor 2 billion years ago according to Discover magazine.

    http://www.discover.com/web-exclusives/natures-nuc lear-reactor0204/ [discover.com]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 21, 2005 @12:10AM (#11733331)

    With the huge amounts of RF being pumped into the atmosphere from human activity, it's no wonder that there is a seemingly "natural" particle accelerator up there.

    But it's surely a human caused RF assisted event.

  • by ZackSchil (560462) on Monday February 21, 2005 @01:04AM (#11733643)
    "I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space."

    I'm not. If they were directed downward, creatures on earth would have evolved some defenses against irradiation and made space travel (and a lot of other things) a hell of a lot easier.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 21, 2005 @06:42AM (#11734825)
    Yes, a most reasonable application of the milder form of the anthropic principle.

    And, indeed, it may be that life did evolve a defence to radiation. Nick Lane in his fascinating book "Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World":

    http://pages.britishlibrary.net/nick.lane/
    Nick Lane homepage

    points out that radiation damage and oxidation start from opposite ends of the same radical pathway. So why did the first cells develop anti-oxidant protection before there was much oxygen around ? Nick suggests radiation was the trigger.

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