Finding: tropical storms produce radiation bursts

NASA’s Fermi Catches Gamma-ray Flashes from Tropical Storms

During a period of rapid strengthening on Aug. 23, 2012, Typhoon Bolaven launched its only TGF from an outer rain band located nearly 490 miles (785 km) from the storm’s center (roughly bottom center of the full image). The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of Bolaven the following day. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team

About a thousand times a day, thunderstorms fire off fleeting bursts of some of the highest-energy light naturally found on Earth. These events, called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs), last less than a millisecond and produce gamma rays with tens of millions of times the energy of visible light. Since its launch in 2008, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has recorded more than 4,000 TGFs, which scientists are studying to better understand how the phenomenon relates to lightning activity, storm strength and the life cycle of storms.

Now, for the first time, a team of NASA scientists has analyzed dozens of TGFs launched by the largest and strongest weather systems on the planet: tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons. A paper describing the research was published March 16 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

“One result is a confirmation that storm intensity alone is not the key factor for producing TGFs,” said Oliver Roberts, who led the study at the University College Dublin, Ireland, and is now at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “We found a few TGFs were made in the outer rain bands of major storms, hundreds of kilometers from the powerful eye walls at their centers, and one weak system that fired off several TGFs in a day.”

Scientists suspect TGFs arise from the strong electric fields near the tops of thunderstorms. Under certain conditions, these fields become strong enough to drive an “avalanche” of electrons upward at nearly the speed of light. When these accelerated electrons race past air molecules, their paths become deflected slightly. This change causes the electrons to emit gamma rays.

Labeled image of Fermi telescope
This photograph, taken in May 2008 as the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was being readied for launch, highlights the detectors of the spacecraft’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM). An identical set of detectors is mounted on the opposite side of the spacecraft. The GBM is an array of 14 crystal detectors designed for transient lower-energy gamma-ray outbursts, such as TGFs.
Credits: NASA/Jim Grossmann

​Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) detects TGFs occurring within about 500 miles (800 kilometers) of the location directly beneath the spacecraft. In 2012, GBM scientists employed new techniques that effectively upgraded the instrument, increasing its sensitivity and leading to a higher rate of TGF detections.

This enhanced discovery rate helped the GBM team show that most TGFs also generate a strong pulse of very low frequency radio waves, signals previously attributed only to lightning. Facilities like the Total Lightning Network operated by Earth Networks in Germantown, Maryland, and the World Wide Lightning Location Network, a research collaboration run by the University of Washington in Seattle, can pinpoint lightning- and TGF-produced radio pulses to within 6 miles (10 km) anywhere on the globe.

“Combining TGF data from GBM with precise positions from these lightning detection networks has opened up our ability to connect the outbursts to individual storms and their components,” said co-author Michael Briggs, assistant director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at University of Huntsville (UAH).

The team studied 37 TGFs associated with, among other storms, typhoons Nangka (2015) and Bolaven (2012), Hurricane Paula (2010), the 2013 tropical storms Sonia and Emang and Hurricane Manuel, and the disturbance that would later become Hurricane Julio in 2014.

“In our study, Julio holds the record for TGFs, firing off four within 100 minutes on Aug. 3, 2014, another the day after, and then no more for the life of the storm,” Roberts said. “Most of this activity occurred as Julio underwent rapid intensification into a tropical depression, but long before it had even become a named storm.”

What the scientists have learned so far is that TGFs from tropical systems do not have properties measurably different from other TGFs detected by Fermi. Weaker storms are capable of producing greater numbers of TGFs, which may arise anywhere in the storm. In more developed systems, like hurricanes and typhoons, TGFs are more common in the outermost rain bands, areas that also host the highest lightning rates in these storms.

Most of the tropical storm TGFs occurred as the systems intensified. Strengthening updrafts drive clouds higher into the atmosphere where they can generate powerful electric fields, setting the stage for intense lightning and for the electron avalanches thought to produce TGFs.

TGFs were discovered in 1992 by NASA’s Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, which operated until 2000.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Fermi was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

The GBM Instrument Operations Center is located at the National Space Science Technology Center in Huntsville. The GBM team includes a collaboration of scientists from UAH, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, University College Dublin in Ireland and other institutions.

For more information on Fermi, visit:


49 thoughts on “Finding: tropical storms produce radiation bursts

      • I understood that as well. Lightening goes to ground. This phenomena was described as “shooting upwards” into space.
        Perhaps these scientists have discovered yet another method of energy dissipation from earth.

      • RS, there is ground strike lightning. But more common is cloud to cloud between regions of negative and positive net electric field. That can be upward. The field is is stored in the Helmholtz double layer at the interface of two phases of matter, like water and ice in Tstorms. In supercaps, it is the interface between carbon and electrolyte. Which is why the motto for my supercap nanocarbons invention is ‘lightning in a bottle’. Neat little piece of revised physics with two very strong patents issued in places like Russia, Korea, Japan, US, and soon EU.

      • Lightening goes to ground. This phenomena was described as “shooting upwards” into space.

        Lightning can happen between ground and air, or in air only. And while electrons shoot up, the positive charges shoot down. Lightning has always two endpoints with different charges. The reason why upshooting electrons are interesting is they are light, 0,511 MeV, so they accelerate to a very signicant speed if they travel over potential of megavolts in low pressure that provides nearly collision-free acceleration.

      • “Lightening goes to ground. ”

        A common misconception. The return stroke travels up. In some cases, it can be the opposite too.

    • They don’t say that lightning produced the gamma rays; just high electric fields, but evidently not high enough to start a lightning strike.

      Evidently these scientists have no idea what photon energy these gamma rays have; they measure it in millions of times visible light units; which is a unit derived from the Pyramid Inch.

      And they don’t seem to know either that gamma rays are not “light” which is a psychophysical response of the human eye; so it is all in your head. “Light” is NOT energy either, so it is not even measured in energy units, but in the units of photometry; such as lumen/lux/candela/whatever.

      So they need some remedial instruction in elementary physics.


  1. There may be a different origination mechanism related to LENR. The Russians have shown that some lightning strikes produce large fluxes of slow moving ‘cold’ neutrons. That is even more surprising than gamma rays.
    Widom-Larsen theory predicts this neutron result from sufficiently energetic ‘heavy’ electrons via the weak force. Nobel Physicist Julian Schwinger worked out an analogous mechanism in sonoluminescence, and proposed at MIT in 1994 that LENR might entail similar surface plasmon physics. The cold neutron cascade results in deuterated, then tritiated, then ‘quatriated’ ( homage to the Mouse that Roared) hydrogen isotopes in water. The quattrium immediately decays into helium with the release of weak gamma and beta radiation plus heat. If the Brillouin Energy flask experiments are valid, then Widom-Larsen weak force theory is experimentally verified. But to date the energy gain for their lab process (if valid given concerns about high frequency AC leakage) is only 2.5x, not near enough to be practical. A long ‘recognition’ chapter example in my 2012 ebook The Arts of Truth.

    • ristvan, you are an unusual fellow with a most broadly eclectic bundle of knowledge and talents: sciences, law, economics, big dairy farm operator, author… & etc I’m sure. I always enjoy and learn from your contributions to the real ‘conversation’.

      • GP, thanks. My basic problem is high IQ boredom from a Harvard summa BA (accepted as a Ph.D thesis no less), then Harvard JD/MBA. Hence my many very non-Harvard interests.
        BTW, my Wisconsin dairy farm started because I got hunting priviledges there after returning from six years in Germany during which I got the Fischerei Prufung but was not there long enough to get the Jaeger Prufung.
        Bought my Wisconsin farm long ago when the previous HBS owner decided to take a Xerox offer in California. (BTW, he and wife Carol are now back in SW Wisconsin on a bigger spread less than ten miles away, selling artisanal soft cheeses to Chicago.) Then I decided to learn about best practices dairy and forest management–my farm. A long, arduous practical education. À
        My kids have benefitted, as have dozens of their friends who with parental permission came up, learned farming, and learned to shoot firearms from black powder muzzle to modern stuff that knocked them on their behinds inside my private range on the farm. On purpose. My .44 Mag (Dirty Harry) handgun has taught more than a few hot shot teenager boys much humility. Sort of a non-profit educational imstitute for potential snowflakes.
        The biggest farm joke that worked for many years (until my kids friends spread the not so secret word in high school) was chocolate milk. Any young milking cow will come up to a milking parlor stranger ( young visitor child from Chicago) out of cow curiosity, and then nuzzle. I would then offer those cows an unwrapped Hershey’s, and say now she will produce chocolate milk. My own kids were always appalled, but remained silent. They let their invited farm friend guests sort it out in the milking barn. Usually to much laughter later after dinner around the fireplace in the farmhouse.

        I am pretty sure there are some well educated kids out there. And we need them. Wish could have done more to educate more potential snowflakes.

  2. Is there a chance that these TGFs could have an impact on storm development? Or are the energy levels just too small?

  3. If you google the difference between x-rays and gamma rays, most sites will say the difference is the source. X-rays are said to be produced by electrons and gamma rays are said to be produced by radioactive decay. example

    Clearly, the folks working with NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope think differently. They have it that gamma rays can be produced by the acceleration of electrons. That doesn’t surprise me because gamma rays and x-rays are both em radiation and have similar wavelengths.

    What does surprise me is that gamma rays from tropical storms seem to be relatively rare. On the other hand “X-Rays Abound When Lightning Strikes”. link WUWT?

    • The post paper posits a bremstrahlung mechanism. I think plausible, but less likely than LENR via Widom-Larsen. Reason, brehmstrahling involves a slowing or deflection from another charged particle. The air molecules of the postnpaper aren’t charged. The high electric fields at the top of Tstorms are from Helmholtz double layer capacitance, and nothingnto do with air per se.

      • The question is why, if x-rays and gamma rays are both em at around the same wavelength, are x-rays so abundant and gamma rays not.

      • It used to be simple, with gamma rays higher in energy than X-rays, just as they were higher than UV light.

        Nowadays however, since there is so much overlap in the energies of EM radiation at the short wavelength end of the spectrum, which ray is which is defined based upon the source. Further to confuse matters, different fields use different naming conventions.

        Sort of like the fungible distinctions among rays, light and waves.

      • “The question is why, if x-rays and gamma rays are both em at around the same wavelength, are x-rays so abundant and gamma rays not.”

        X-rays and gamma rays are exactly the same thing, high energy photons. They have different names for historical reasons. X-rays were originally created through bremsstrahlung by Röntgen while gamma rays were discovered slightly later in the study of natural radioactive decay. “X-rays” were so called because of their mysterious nature. Gamma rays were named together with Alpha and Beta rays, and the names were intentionally neutral since the nature of the particles was then unknown. Later it was understood that both are photons and the term gamma rays was restricted to the most energetic (highest frequency) photons.

      • Sorry about all they typos in my post there. Maybe Chasmod or somebody else can fix those up for me.


    • If you poke around in the literature there is strong evidence that thunderstorms also generate occasional positrons. Both electrons and positrons paths will be affected by the planetary magnetic field. It has been speculated that at least some C-14 is generated through this, rather than by solar or cosmic radiation.

      • Nothing very mysterious with that. Any photon with an energy >1.022 MeV can split into an electron and a positron if it passes close to an atomic nucleus.

    • X-rays are a result of energy level changes involving the extra-nuclear electrons, and if I remember correctly usually from some of the inner shells. I believe in the transition metals that includes iron nickel copper etc. the shell involved is the shell where those elements add electrons to convert to the next member of the series. So X-rays are not unlike the ordinary hydrogen atom spectral lines, except for energy, and the Hydrogen lines, Balmer, Lyman and Paschen series etc all involve the valence shell electrons. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned about it; and I used to teach it.

      Gamma rays are photon emissions from the nucleus of the atom and usually accompany other emissions such as alpha or beta radiation which are massive particles. Quite often is is the gammas associated with various radioactive decays, that are the dangerous things. Alphas and betas can be stopped by next to nothing, but the gammas are quite penetrating.

      For example a Polonium-Berryllium neutron source, which is a neutron source in a bottle , emist maybe 10^4 gammas per neutron, and if you happen to be using a neutron detector which is not sensitive to gamma ray, you may think you have a somewhat benign critter on your hands. Neutron detectors like proportional gas counters can be completely insensitive to gammas, and click away it tick tock rates. But you put something like an Anthracene of Stilbene scintillation detector near them, and its sounds like rush hour in Tokyo.
      rich people prefer a Plutonium-Berryllium neutron source in a bottle because it is both longer half life, and much lower gamma to neutron ratio. And you will have a heck of a time getting permission to have a Pu-Be source. So I had to live with the Po-Be poor man’s neutron source.

      So the fundamental difference between X-rays and Gamma rays is whether the source is external to the nucleus, or internal. And of course Gamma rays are usually much more energetic than X-rays.


    • You may have an opening to a fat climate-related appropriation right there. It is conceivable that high speed electrons interact differently with molecules with a dipole moment (=GHG) than they do with other molecules.

  4. Trails left by alien spacecraft entering or leaving the earth under cover of thunderstorm.

  5. Some of the early nuclear detonation detection satellites had a problem with false positives from gamma flashes; until spectrometers (NaI Tl) and EMP detectors were incorporated. This was the early VELA project circa 1967.

  6. This is great study and may lead to better understanding of the wider cosmic electrical phenomenon.
    There are all those various cosmic rays coming from space. Very probably many are also generated by electrical storms in the space plasma.
    I think that electromagnetism plays a much wider role in space (and on the earth) then we have recognized so far.

  7. Great article, enlightening comments. What’s not to like?

    Once in awhile it appears the GISS Earth Studies department does something useful, but I’d be a whole lot happier if this research fell under the dominion of NOAA.

    • Well Scott Wilmot Bennett; why don’t you tell the Commission on Colorimetry, of the Optical Society of America, that all of them are a bunch of smart- asses. Oh by the way, the Optical Society of America is ONE of the original founding bodies of the American Institute of Physics, so you might as well call all the members of the AIP a bunch of smart asses too. They wrote the definitive Text Book on the subject many many years ago. It’s called ” The Science of Color. ”

      I would give you the ISBN number and the very page number where you can read THEIR definition of LIGHT, of which I gave you the short version. But you’re so damn smart, you can look it up for yourself

      The ” Photo-electric Effect ” for which explanation, Einstein got his Nobel prize relates to electron emission from metals, and semi metals as a result of ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION which is a form of energy measured in joules and energy related units such as power.(watt).

      Light is quantified in completely subjective units defined in the branch of physics called photometry, and is furthermore constrained to the effect of a single octave of the entire EM radiation spectrum from 400 nm wavelength to 800 nm wavelength.

      There is precisely zero experimental reported measures for any ” light ” stimulated by EM radiation outside that single octave. And it is entirely a response that takes place inside the retina of the HUMAN eye. there are NO definitions or data on the photometric response of the eyes of giant Squid, or any other critter, whether animal, or vegetable or even mineral, some of which DO respond to EM radiant ENERGY.

      It’s no wonder that we have so many idiots rioting in the streets over weather or climate issues, about which they no absolutely nothing. It seems that they just don’t teach elementary science in schools any more.


    • Actually Einstein’s discovery was that the emission (or not) of a photo-electron from a metal or semi-metal was quite independent of the intensity of the radiation, and entirely dependent on the wavelength (frequency) of the radiation. If the wavelength of the radiation was short enough (higher frequency), the emission of a photo-electron was virtually instantaneous; NO MATTER how low the Radiant Intensity of the radiation was.

      Classical Herz / Maxwell EM wave theory, opined that at low radiant intensities, it would take a long time to accumulate enough energy from the wave to eject an electron. Experiments showed that was not so, and Einstein reasoned that the energy must be in packets with energy depending on the frequency.

      So far as I know, there are NO peer reviewed papers by Albert Einstein relating to the psycho-physical properties of the human eye; nor did he do any experimental research on that subject.

      But I don’t give a rip about your opinion. If even one reader is helped learn something from my posts, It is worth my time.
      I would almost venture a guess that you are equally ignorant of the researches of G.S. Ohm.

      I know for a fact that my own Alma Mater still teaches Ohm’s Law incorrectly; because they told me that was so. Fortunately, I went to a good high school so I learned Ohm’s Law in my first year in high school. And it is still one of the questions I would ask any candidate, I was interviewing for a job involving electronics. I’ve had at least one Stanford PhD fail on that question.

      But I guess he wasn’t a smart ass like me.


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