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Title: Observations of narrow bipolar events reveal how lightning is initiated in thunderstorms

A long-standing but fundamental question in lightning studies concerns how lightning is initiated inside storms, given the absence of physical conductors. The issue has revolved around the question of whether the discharges are initiated solely by conventional dielectric breakdown or involve relativistic runaway electron processes. Here we report observations of a relatively unknown type of discharge, called fast positive breakdown, that is the cause of high-power discharges known as narrow bipolar events. We find that the breakdown has a wide range of strengths and is the initiating event of numerous lightning discharges. It appears to be purely dielectric in nature and to consist of a system of positive streamers in a locally intense electric field region. It initiates negative breakdown at the starting location of the streamers, which leads to the ensuing flash. The observations show that many or possibly all lightning flashes are initiated by fast positive breakdown.
 [1] ;  [1] ;  [1] ;  [1] ;  [2] ;  [1] ;  [1] ;  [3]
  1. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, NM (United States). Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research
  2. Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
  3. Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, Beijing (China). Laboratory of Lightning Physics and Protection Engineering
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Grant/Contract Number:
HR0011-10-1-0057; HR0011-10-1-0059; AGS-1205727; HQ0147-08-C- 0025
Accepted Manuscript
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Additional Journal Information:
Journal Volume: 7; Journal ID: ISSN 2041-1723
Nature Publishing Group
Research Org:
Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE; National Science Foundation (NSF); Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
Country of Publication:
United States