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Large Storms On Earth Are Particle Accelerators 166

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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  • Particles (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by Musc ( 10581 )
    I am made out of subatomic particles.
  • by zurtle ( 785688 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:50PM (#11731285) Homepage
    Gamma rays? Pfffft!

    Last time I was in a TGIF restaurant, I was exposed to all sorts of dangerous things...
    Loud Americans with cigars
    and of course copious amounts of spilled beer.

  • Can someone describe the physics that describe the creation of magnetic fields powerful enough to cause particle acceleration to some interesting end? Something just isn't adding up here. My guesstimates put the magnetic fields created by rotating charged particles at several orders of magnitute below any thing that can smash a baryon.
  • by FunWithHeadlines ( 644929 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:51PM (#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!)

    • but without having to build a massive building and dealing with constructions costs, red tape, and NIMBY issues.

      I don't want these gamma ray flashes in my backyard.
    • All we need to do is construct detection systems capable of tracking and positioning themselvs over/around each particle accelerator and then telemeter the results back to some type of simple network. Then have some simple system that can reduce the observations from these many systems, forward that information to the interested scientists. Sounds free to me.
      • Ok, somebody is probably going to take me to school for this one, but is there a way to set this thing off on cue in one big burst? That should cut down on the observation costs.

        What would happen if you could convince some moron to drive a boat into the eye of one of these storms and then set off a laser in the 193 nanometer range and aim it straight up. If you pumped a big old burst of energy into the laser it should make a nice ionized and therefore conductive path up into the stratosphere. Would that se
    • by deglr6328 ( 150198 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @11:32PM (#11732801)
      The energy of the particles involved here are not particularly impressive....from a particle physics research point of view anyway. They are VERY impressive in that no natural mechanism before now has been known (on earth) to produce particle energies this high though. They are speculating that the accelerated electrons involved here are in the ~30 MeV range which is a commonly available energy range easily attained by even small medical e- accelerators (the therac 20 accidents happened with a beam of 20MeV electrons for instance) and the range is not that far above common natural beta decay energies(perhaps an order of magnitude). If you want to get to scientifically interesting energy levels these days (for particle physics research) you have to be at least in the high GeV range and for cutting edge research (the large hadron collider etc.) you need to be in the TeV range (trillion electron volts. When they say "good enough for the theorists to really test their models" they're not talking about the standard model of particle physics, they're talking about the models of particle acceleration in thunderstorms, I suspect.
  • Sprites ? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Animaether ( 411575 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:51PM (#11731294) Journal
    I'm curious... could these be related to 'Sprites' in any way? teinfo.html []
    • I have a feeling the answer is yes, but here is what the article says:
      TGFs have been correlated with lightning strikes and may be related to visible phenomena that occur in the upper atmosphere over thunderstorms, such as red sprites and blue jets. Just how these various phenomena are related is a question the RHESSI investigators plan to pursue in collaboration with other researchers around the world, Smith said.
    • Re:Sprites ? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by calidoscope ( 312571 )
      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 late

    • I wouldn't know about Sprite.
  • by lecithin ( 745575 ) * on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:51PM (#11731296)
    This dates back to 'The Wizard of Oz' when Dorothy and Toto were accelerated over the rainbow by a large storm.

  • Important! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bprime ( 734645 )
    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."
  • by centipetalforce ( 793178 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:57PM (#11731331)
    These gamma ray bursts are also known as red sprites, blue jets, and super lightning. []
  • They say they're getting 35 MeV electrons. This isn't enough to help out in modern high-energy particle experiments, but still could be useful. Maybe.
  • A fingerprint? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:04PM (#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...)?
    • You sir, have posed an interesting question.
      • It's too bad empirical evidence points to his insightful, interesting, underrated, informative, and potentially funny comment being modded down despite fitting every positive moderator point the site offers. ;)
    • Re:A fingerprint? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by grumpygrodyguy ( 603716 ) on Monday February 21, 2005 @05:55AM (#11734481)
      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...)?

      Good idea, but completely impractical.

      Not to insult everyone, but the fact this is modded to 5 shows how low the general physics knowledge of the slashdot readership is.

      Astronomy is about gathering photons, and that's pretty much it. The more photons, the 'brighter' the source and more easy it is to detect from a greater distance. The number of gamma ray 'photons' produced by a terrestrial storm would probably be undetectable from the distance to our moon, much less from another solar system in our galaxy.
  • by AntiPasto ( 168263 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:07PM (#11731383) Journal
    that frood always talked about partical accelerators... just don't f'in cross the streams!
    • You know what you'd really get if you crossed the streams? Nothing, because it can't be done. They're both of the same charge, and like charges repell. Good movie, lousy physics.
      • Good movie, lousy physics.

        Well, it's a comic movie about ghosts. Somehow it never occurred to me to expect a high degree of scientific accuracy.

  • Silly comment (Score:2, Redundant)

    by pclminion ( 145572 )
    I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space.

    Ummm... We've had thunderstorms for billions of years, and presumably these gamma ray bursts as well. They are completely natural phenomena. If they could negatively affect us, we would have either evolved a method for coping millions of years ago, or we wouldn't even exist today.

    OF COURSE the things are directed into space. Duh.

    • They are completely natural phenomena.

      Unless they're really an old planetary defence system left over from a previous civilization. (Not quite the Ringworld defence, but who knows what it was designed to stop.)

    • It's too bad they are NOT directed towards us. Every living thing, including us, WOULD have evolved a natural defense -- which would have meant that our current crop of fusion weapons would have been far less dangerous to all life on this planet.
    • Re:Silly comment (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Alchemar ( 720449 )
      Ummm ... We've had thundersorms for billions of years, and presumably these lightning strikes as well. They are completely natural phenomena. If they could negatively affect us, we would have either evolved a method for coping millions of years ago, or we wouldn't even exit today.

      Sorry about being a bit to sarcastic, but I couldn't resist.

      Natural selection works more on what is slightly harmful to an entire species, not what is extremely harmful to a few random individuals. Even if the gamma rays did p
      • <Blockquote>Even if the gamma rays did point strait down, we would be wondering why there was an occasional case of natural combustion, not the extiction of the human race.</blockquote>

        The first thing that came to mind when I read that was Spontaneous Human Combustion.

    • The definition of a meaningless statement...

      * Weak anthropic principle (WAP): "The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirements that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so." -


    • I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space.

      Not so silly really. I'm sure the lawyers working for Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic spacelines are already creating waivers to sign so the passengers can not sue if they should return to the Earth as the Incredible Hulk.
  • me too (Score:3, Funny)

    by ezthrust ( 564219 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:14PM (#11731426) Homepage
    "I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space."

    No way, if they shot down to earth, then we could ALL be the Hulk.

  • Space elevators? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord_Dweomer ( 648696 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:15PM (#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?

  • Sounds scary really... lets hope no-one predicts a 'day after tomorrow' type event next :o
  • And to the ground (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Viadd ( 173388 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:25PM (#11731477)
    I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space.

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

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

      by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:45PM (#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:And to the ground (Score:3, Informative)

        by Muhammar ( 659468 )
        there is not much gamma released in nuke explosion (except for the fission product decay), most of the initial radiation pulse is actualy X-ray and neutrons.
      • "More than a few feet of air will block X-rays."

        If that's the case, why do they put so much lead around xray facilities in hospitals? And why can x-rays pass through bodies and metal so easily?

        I'm not saying you're wrong, just that what you say doesn't correlate to my experiences.
  • So ...

    Could one of theses large storms be responsible for the mutation that caused humans to go from poop flingers to problem solvers? ... The Dude
  • by toddhunter ( 659837 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:37PM (#11731542)
    The the Earth is not only a giant computer, but a particle accelarator as well? Pretty versatile planet really.
  • by ari_j ( 90255 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:39PM (#11731545)
    I'm glad the gamma-ray bursts are directed into space.

    As am I, but I fear that these bursts of gamma rays are the real reason nobody's made first contact with us yet. It's kind of like when you go around town looking for a restaurant, you generally avoid the restaurants that bullets fly out of when you're pulling into the parking lot, opting instead for a restaurant where you can get at least to the hostess or maybe even your table before anyone shoots at you.

    It's the same thing at work, here. Aliens do not want to share their warp drive technology with a planet that blasts them with gamma rays every time they fly by.

  • by zymano ( 581466 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @08:48PM (#11731602)
    Gamma Rays from storms []
  • Fools! (Score:3, Funny)

    by LaminatorX ( 410794 ) <> on Sunday February 20, 2005 @09:10PM (#11731739) Homepage
    These are not "naturally ocurring phenomena," as these simpletons posing as scientists seem to believe. Yes there is something in the tops of these thunderheads interacting with the ionosphere, and when I have it perfected everyone who laughed at my theroies will see what terrestrial gamma emissions are REALLY about!



    Especially the accursed Reed Richards.

  • Hmmm... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lord Kano ( 13027 )
    I wonder if blasts of gamma rays can be to blame for Cancer Clusters that have defied other explanations.

    • I'm not sure they could. It's possible, but since they are directed towards space, I highly doubt it.
    • Why is it whenever anyone mentions X-rays or gamma rays, people freak out about cancer.

      I chalk this up to general paranoia about radiation. We get hit with x-rays and gamma rays all the time. Our cells get belted with all sorts of radiation.

      It is highly doubtful that this radiation (or X-rays from lightening bolts) are causing any sort of increase in cancer rates. You get more X-rays from your computer.

      And while these gama ray bursts may happen, they are relatively weak. AND THERE STREAMING UP, NOT DOWN
  • If you read and post science articles here on Slashdot, I encourage you to visit SciScoop [] and help us grow the community there. We reported this very TGF story two days ago [].
  • by Anonymous Coward
    It sounds like an interesting phenomenon 35 MeV is higher gamma ray energies than I would have guessed. Maybe understanding the production mechanism can produce some insight about how some of the gamma rays from space are produced.

    However, the energies for these are FAR FAR lower than the higher gammas from space. The highest cosmic rays are thought to be 20 TeV - 10^6 times higher energy than these. The highest man made particle beams are only 1 TeV (from the Tevatron at Fermilab

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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 @02:04AM (#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.
  • Not to Worry... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    First, about the energy: The energies of the particles (electrons) are only ~30 Mev. That's not much. Just for comparison, the Fermilab accelerator produces protons with 800 Gev (i.e., 800,000 Mev). Second, about the numbers of particles (i.e., the intensity): The article talks about 50 or so events per day. If that is 50 gamma rays, that's not very much. The Fermilab accelerator beam typically has a trillion protons in a pulse. So, it's interesting that one can get Mev energy photons at the top of th
  • I had David Smith last quarter for Mechanics! Good prof... The man has a thing for chickens, though... It's unhealthy... He came to class the day before finals in a chicken suit. He also drew himself in a loincloth in one of the problems on the final. To be fair, he was Tarzan. Hmm, maybe I'll go to his office hours and talk with him about this research...

The moon may be smaller than Earth, but it's further away.