Using a climate model to map global atmospheric conductivity

From the University of Colorado at Boulder

CU-Boulder researchers use climate model to better understand electricity in the air

Electrical currents born from thunderstorms are able to flow through the atmosphere and around the globe, causing a detectable electrification of the air even in places with no thunderstorm activity.

But until recently, scientists have not had a good understanding of how conductivity varies throughout the atmosphere and how that may affect the path of the electrical currents. Now, a research team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has developed a global electric circuit model by adding an additional layer to a climate model created by colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder.

The results, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, show that the atmosphere is generally less conductive over the equator and above Southeast Asia and more conductive closer to the poles, though the atmosphere’s conductivity changes seasonally and with the weather.

Research into atmospheric electrification stretches back to the 1750s, when researchers, including Benjamin Franklin, were trying to better understand the nature of lightning. In the 1800s, scientists measured changes in the atmosphere’s electric field from the Kew Observatory near London, and in the 1900s, the Carnegie, an all-wooden ship built without any magnetic materials, crisscrossed the ocean while taking atmospheric electricity measurements that are still referenced today.

Sailing_fig_6[1]

Carnegie Cruise1.jpg
Carnegie on her first cruise

But obtaining a global picture of atmospheric conductivity has been difficult, in part because the atmosphere’s ability to channel electricity is not static. Ions, which allow current to move through the air, are added to the upper atmosphere by a continuous bombardment of galactic cosmic rays and to the lower atmosphere through radioactive decay. But those ions can be removed from the atmosphere in a variety of ways.

“They can recombine, to some degree, but they also attach themselves to aerosols and water droplets,” said Andreas Baumgaertner, a research associate in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department and lead author of the study. “Once they are attached to a heavy particle, like a water droplet, then you’ve lost the ability for it to conduct a current.”

The amount of water droplets in the atmosphere varies as moisture-laden clouds move through an area, and the quantity of aerosols varies depending on their source. Aerosols are pumped into the atmosphere from tailpipes and smokestacks as well as from erupting volcanoes.

Baumgaertner and his colleagues—including CU-Boulder Professor Jeffrey Thayer, director of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research; Ryan Neely, an atmospheric scientist at NCAR; and Greg Lucas, a CU-Boulder doctoral student in aerospace engineering sciences—came up with the idea of using NCAR’s existing Community Earth System Model to get a global picture of conductivity because the model already took into account both water vapor and aerosols.

The team added in equations that represent how many ions are produced by cosmic rays from space and by radioactive decay through radon emissions from the Earth’s surface. They also added equations for how those ions react in the atmosphere. The resulting 2,000 lines of code allowed them to create the first global picture of conductivity and how it evolves with time.

What they found was that, during a year, the atmosphere was on average less able to conduct electricity above areas of the globe that also have high emissions of aerosols, especially in Southeast Asia. In general, the atmosphere above the equator also was less conductive, mainly due to fewer galactic cosmic rays than at the poles. The researchers also found that the conductivity of the atmosphere as a whole varied with the seasons and was generally less conductive in June and July than in December and January.

The research team is now working to feed data on frequency and location of storms into the model so they can better understand how the current provided by lightning actually moves.

“The next step is to incorporate the distribution of thunderstorms,” Lucas said. “Currents generally travel upwards above thunderstorms distributed around the equator and return down over the poles, away from the thunderstorms. Part of the future work is going to be determining what influence those thunderstorms have on the global system.”

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Funding for the study was provided in part by the National Science Foundation’s Frontiers in Earth System Dynamics program and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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51 thoughts on “Using a climate model to map global atmospheric conductivity

  1. Surely! cnxtim…would you mind terribly to take just a wee bit of your time and effort to tell the rest of us uninitiated just what Tesla uttered before he passed? Pretty please? Thank you ever soooooo much. You’re a darling. Ta, ta!

  2. vukcevic says:
    October 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm
    Tropical electric storms are linked to both solar activity via ionosphere and the Earth’s magnetic equator.

  3. Sorry folks NASA article I referred to in the above post is off bounds, have to wait for ‘politicos’ to sort out the budget’
    Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.
    We sincerely regret this inconvenience.

  4. So let me get this straight, they have a model of the atmosphere, and it will generate empirical data? What they really have is a prediction that needs to be confirmed by observations. Until they have measured data and confirmation of the model it is just vaporware.

  5. Years ago one evening our family was watching lightning strikes 15-20 miles distant. We were standing under a patio roof which had several decorative brass and copper pots and watering cans hanging on nails. Everytime lightning would strike, the pots and cans would simultaneously make an audible “ping” sound. Then after several seconds we’d hear the thunder. We guessed it had something to do with charged ions because there was no discernable delay between the flash and the pinging sound–it happened everytime there was a strike.

  6. CK Moore: Perhaps an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) stemming from the lightning?

    Ions would move more slowly even than the thunder.

  7. So they took a climate model that doesn’t work, added more unproven variables and after it was done spitting out its information they declared they discovered something.

    This reminds me of those computers where you could input all the data for a horse race and it would tell you which horse would win. Except nobody took those guesses to the window and expected a payment without actually watching the race.

  8. What is the experimental evidence that electric currents are able to flow around in the atmosphere?

  9. I would like to see some experimental work to validate this model. However, it is very interesting

  10. GlynnMhor: An electromagnetic pulse would make more sense. Even closely spaced strikes would produce perfectly timed “pings”. It was interesting nevertheless.

  11. The Electric Plasma Universe .Dark Matter and Black Holes are like the heat hiding in the deep oceans a fantasy.

  12. Let’s correct this.
    What they found was that, during a year, THEIR MODEL PREDICTS the atmosphere MIGHT on average BE less able to conduct electricity above areas of the globe that also have high emissions of aerosols, especially in Southeast Asia. In general, THEIR MODEL PREDICTS the atmosphere above the equator also MIGHT BE less conductive, mainly due to fewer galactic cosmic rays than at the poles. The researchers also found that the MODEL INDICATES THE conductivity of the atmosphere as a whole MIGHT varY with the seasons and MIGHT BE generally less conductive in June and July than in December and January. THEY INTEND TO GO INTO THE FIELD AND TAKE MEASUREMENTS TO SEE IF THEIR MODEL ACURATELY PORTRAYS THE REAL ATMOSPHERE.

    That’s better.

    Since when are model results considered empirical data? Oh yes, since Climate Science was created.

  13. George Steiner says:
    October 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm
    What is the experimental evidence that electric currents are able to flow around in the atmosphere?
    ………………
    An electric current is a flow of electric charge; that could be in a wire, in an inert gas as in fluorescent tube or even near vacuum, such as an old fashioned TV tube. In the atmosphere lightning is the most common, but here observational evidence of electric currents in the upper atmosphere reaching all the way from the sun: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4d/Aurora_Borealis_Poster.jpg
    or lesser known one from a volcanic eruption

  14. Next up on the global agenda….

    Why when I read such words as… CU-Boulder, NCAR, aerosols, tailpipes and smokestacks pumped into the atmosphere, the polar region, areas that also have high emissions of aerosols, funding for the study, a mere 2000 lines of code, and such do I suddenly shudder and get this sick feeling? Think I’ve caught my first alergy.

  15. But obtaining a global picture of atmospheric conductivity has been difficult…

    Not so difficult, apparently, to keep the science from being settled, or to prevent the true believers from being “more certain than ever.”

  16. vukcevic says:
    October 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm
    but here observational evidence of electric currents in the upper atmosphere reaching all the way from the sun
    No, the electric currents in the upper atmosphere are induced by a magnetic field reaching all the way from the Sun changing when it meets the Earth’s magnetic field.

  17. Mr. vucvevic, I am puzzled. An electric current in a wire are free electrons. A lightning is the movement of ions moving between electric fields. Two clouds or cloud and the earth. The physical behavior of and the analysis of these two are not the same. In a discharge tube free electrons from one end ionize gas molecules producing an almost zero resistance path as if it was a wire, and the free electrons flow along the wire.

    Mr. Svalgaard your comment puzzles me also. While it is true that magnetic fields do induce electric current in a moving conductor, where is the conductor and where is the moving in the upper atmosphere?

  18. George Steiner says:
    October 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm
    Mr. Svalgaard your comment puzzles me also. While it is true that magnetic fields do induce electric current in a moving conductor, where is the conductor and where is the moving in the upper atmosphere?
    The conductor is the plasma in the ionosphere and magnetosphere of the Earth. The movement is of the magnetic field in the solar wind streaming past the Earth at 400 km/second.

  19. Mr. Svalgaard I remain puzzled. The ionosphere contains ions for sure. That is why the short wave radio waves are reflected. But a plasma it is not. Unless you define any gas containing ions as a plasma. In which case a thunderstorm cloud is big plasma.

  20. Noone seems to mention the role of cosmic rays. I think they are the major ionizing factor in the atmosphere. Moreover the rigidity cut-off is maximal near the equator and minimal near the poles, which goes in the right direction. Am I missing something?

  21. George Steiner says:
    October 4, 2013 at 6:18 pm
    Mr. Svalgaard I remain puzzled. The ionosphere contains ions for sure. That is why the short wave radio waves are reflected. But a plasma it is not.
    It most certainly is. The gas does not need to be completely ionized to be a plasma. for example the solar photosphere is 6000 degrees not and is certainly a plasma, but only one in 10,000 hydrogen atoms is an ion. Plasma is loosely described as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles (i.e. the overall charge of a plasma is roughly zero). More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_(physics)

  22. bacpierre says:
    October 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm
    Noone seems to mention the role of cosmic rays. I think they are the major ionizing factor in the atmosphere. Moreover the rigidity cut-off is maximal near the equator and minimal near the poles, which goes in the right direction. Am I missing something?
    Yes, the cosmic rays provide weak ionization in the lower atmosphere, but up where the action [e.g. aurorae] the major ionizing factor is solar x-ray and ultraviolet radiation.

  23. Maybe I should explain my Tesla comment. He was obsessed by the number three and pigeons, among other things. He was a genius, no doubt, but it appears that he paid the price in other ways for it. He claimed his eyes turned blue because he used his brain so much.

    I think he was just careening off the sanity cliff in his later years.

  24. Leif,
    Seen a curious thing.
    My neighbor has solar powered yard lights, they seem to run out of power late at night.
    I was up late one night, waiting for some rather nasty (radar indicated) thunderstorms to blow thru.

    The yard lights were out, but would light up with each lightning , the brighter the lightning the longer the lights would stay on (anywhere from 1-5 seconds).
    Photons are photons or what ??

  25. u.k.(us) says:
    October 4, 2013 at 8:12 pm
    Photons are photons or what ??
    I would think so. You lights are obviously starved late at night.
    You can also do what some Spanish people are doing: shine net-powered flood-lights at your solar-powered lights, or even at some solar panels and sell the electricity generated :-)

  26. Saw subject: “using a model” and sent this link to “Deleted Items.” Then, went there and clicked on it to write this. And am I glad I opened the article anyway — I VOTED “very poor” and removed half a star!

    Bwah, ha, ha, ha,, haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Take that, you lousy, used model, salespeople. Yeah, go ahead. Push those models for all you’re worth. They are still JUNK.

    “Money for nuthin’….. look at ‘em …. they ain’t dumb… .” (Dire Straits, 1985)

  27. Well, what can you expect from people who believe a ‘greenhouse gas’ free atmosphere is unable to warm up via conduction and convection.

  28. Isvalgaard says: Yes, the cosmic rays provide weak ionization in the lower atmosphere, but up where the action [e.g. aurorae] the major ionizing factor is solar x-ray and ultraviolet radiation.

    What do you mean? Aurorae are due to charged particles, not to photons, whether X or UV. If they were due to (neutral) photons, there would be no geomagnetic effect, they would occur at all latitudes. Where do you take it from that cosmic rays provide only weak ionization in only the lower atmosphere? This is contrary to what I learned. Do you have a reference with numbers?
    Thank you so much, Bacpierre

  29. 1. Less conductivity at the equator than at the poles & less in summer than winter. Cooler means less absolute humidity to interfere with electric transmission. Model or not these guys could be right (even if by accident).

    2. Tesla’s last word was, “Rosebud.”

  30. Are “instantaneous” measurements of atmospheric conductivity actually useful? Wouldn’t the signal be constantly moving from moment to moment, as well as spatially? It seems to me, that a constant network of continuous sampling would be required over a representational area, would be required for anything meaningful. Or am I looking at this problem incorrectly?! GK

  31. C.K.Moore says:
    October 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm
    “Years ago one evening our family was watching lightning strikes 15-20 miles distant. We were standing under a patio roof which had several decorative brass and copper pots and watering cans hanging on nails. Everytime lightning would strike, the pots and cans would simultaneously make an audible “ping” sound. Then after several seconds we’d hear the thunder. We guessed it had something to do with charged ions because there was no discernable delay between the flash and the pinging sound–it happened everytime there was a strike.”

    Very interesting! Though I would bet on EMP being the cause, I am wondering if there could be any connection with the process creating terrestrial gamma ray flashes and the anti-matter particles which they create (and exist briefly) before being annihilated which result from lightning flashes and the TGF’s.

  32. William Randolph Hearst (played by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”)
    “Rosebud.”

    Not to spoil it, just a clue to the mystery for those who haven’t watched that film:
    We encounter many people and have many experiences before we die, but,
    what happens in our childhood leaves the deepest impression of all.

    Related reading:
    Ecclesiastes

  33. vukcevic says October 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    but here observational evidence of electric currents in the upper atmosphere reaching all the way from the sun:

    In my book, a one-way stream of charged particles does not a current make …

    I’m afraid some definitions are not terribly rigorous in this ‘field’.

    .

  34. Jim G says October 5, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Very interesting! Though I would bet on EMP being the cause, I am wondering if there could be any connection with the process creating terrestrial gamma ray flashes and the …

    Please please please … look at the EM (electromagnetic) effects first before branching off into semi-exotic areas of physics; you just had an electrical discharge of between 20,000 and 500,000 Amperes and the associated magnetic and electrical field changes are enough to create effects within a few miles. Marconi’s first work involved the generation or arcs and sparks at a distance using primitive means to do so …

    .

  35. u.k.(us) says October 4, 2013 at 8:12 pm
    Leif,
    Seen a curious thing.
    My neighbor has solar powered yard lights, they seem to run out of power late at night.
    I was up late one night, waiting for some rather nasty (radar indicated) thunderstorms to blow thru.

    The yard lights were out, but would light up with each lightning , the brighter the lightning the longer the lights would stay on (anywhere from 1-5 seconds).
    Photons are photons or what ??

    Yes … same effect can be seen in the morning by exposing said yard light to ‘sun’ or a bright light source THEN quickly covering the solar cell and light sensor to judge if the batts are at all in place or connected …

  36. Isvalgaard says: Yes, the cosmic rays provide weak ionization in the lower atmosphere, but up where the action [e.g. aurorae] the major ionizing factor is solar x-ray and ultraviolet radiation.

    Having had no answer to my earlier post, I try to understand what you meant, which I am sure must make sense. Aurorae are caused by charged particles (solar wind) and have nothing to do with photons, I am sure that you agree with that. Now we are talking about conductivity induced by storms, therefore, I imagine, in the lower atmosphere. I thought that there cosmic rays where an important ionizing factor, is it wrong? How much is it compared to other sources? Either you did not express yourself accurately or I am missing something. I think that you are a specialist of such topics, therefore I hope that you can educate me…
    Thank you so much.

  37. Am I the only person who caught this?

    ” Aerosols are pumped into the atmosphere from tailpipes and smokestacks as well as from erupting volcanoes.”

  38. IIRC, there is a continuous real time track of lightning strikes kept, triangulated with radio signals. Ordinary AM receivers are used.

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