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Nobody knows exactly what triggers lightning bolts.

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Now, two Russian researchers say that these discharges of a billion volts or more could be caused by the interaction of cosmic rays — high-energy particles from outer space — with water droplets in thunderclouds. Cosmic rays are created deep in space by powerful events such as star collisions, gamma ray bursts and supernovae. These cataclysms accelerate charged particles, mostly protons, to very high energies.

The rays zoom across space, and those that strike the upper atmosphere of Earth generate invisible but highly energetic air showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. The idea that these air showers could cause lightning when they pass through a thundercloud has been around for two decades. Russian physicist Alexandr Gurevich suggested that the high-energy particles produced by a cosmic ray strike ionize the air in thunderclouds, creating a region with a lot of free electrons.


Then the electrons collide with atoms in the air, generating even more electrons as well as X-rays and gamma rays. Radio waves could provide a clue, Dwyer says: Cascades of electrons at the onset of a lightning strike should produce radio waves. To test the concept, Gurevich and his colleague Anatoly Karashtin analyzed data from 3, cloud-to-ground lightning strikes recorded in Russia and Kazakhstan. Their shape, the researchers say, matches their models of runaway breakdown triggered by energetic cosmic rays. Cosmic rays with enough energy are too rare to trigger all the pulses that Gurevich and Karashtin observed.

So-called hydrometeors — hail and water droplets in each cloud — may be amplifying the pulses, Gurevich and Karashtin propose, and trigger a flurry of microdischarges that boost both the current and the radio pulse signal. But British lightning scientist Clive Saunders remains unconvinced. Most researchers, Saunders said, lean toward another theory: Lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field.

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This process alone can ionize the air enough for a lightning bolt to form, he says — no cosmic rays required. Subscribe to The Charlotte Observer. The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views. You might have Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript to make full use of this site.

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