Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Delivering science and technology to protect our nation and promote world stability

Bigger, Badder Bolts

Lightning reveals its secrets only to the most painstaking analyses.
January 1, 2020
demonstrates a crucial challenge in space-based sampling of lightning

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured this image over Bolivia. It demonstrates a crucial challenge in space-based sampling of lightning: The amount of light observed depends on the view through the clouds. Here, lower-lying clouds reflect a great deal of the flash, amplifying the observed intensity, while other clouds above hide the flash, reducing the observed intensity. So how energetic was the actual flash? CREDIT: NASA

A single spiderweb-like flash covered an area the size of Ohio.

Los Alamos scientist Michael Peterson developed a new algorithm to assemble a more complete picture of lightning in the historical data from a number of Earth-observing satellites. In data from 2018 alone, his algorithm caught more than 14 million lightning events that had been underrepresented in the previous real-time data processing and were therefore widely ignored by the scientific community. What Peterson found was downright astonishing and yielded new insights into an old controversy about the nature of extreme lightning events known as “superbolts.”

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