Television Image of a Large Upward Electrical Discharge Above a Thunderstorm System

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Science  06 Jul 1990:
Vol. 249, Issue 4964, pp. 48-51
DOI: 10.1126/science.249.4964.48


An image of an unusual luminous electrical discharge over a thunderstorm 250 kilometers from the observing site has been obtained with a low-light-level television camera. The discharge began at the cloud tops at 14 kilometers and extended into the clear air 20 kilometers higher. The image, which had a duration of less than 30 milliseconds,resembled two jets or fountains and was probably caused by two localizd electric charge concentrations at the cloud tops. Large upward discharges may create a hazard for aircraft and rocket launches and, by penetrating into the ionosphere, may initiate whistler waves and other effects on a magnetospheric scale. Such upward electrical discharges may account for unexplained photometric observations of distant lightning events that showed a low rise rate of the luminous pulse and no electromagnetic sferic pulse of the type that accompanies cloud-to-earth lightning strokes. An unusually high rate of such photometric events was recorded during the night of 22 to 23 September 1989 during a storm associated with hurricane Hugo.

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