April 12th, 2013
03:50 PM ET

Scientists explore 'dark lightning'

By Matthew Abshire, CNN

Just when you thought being struck by lightning couldn’t get any more terrifying, there's this:

Researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology are investigating what is being dubbed “dark lightning,” using computer models. This invisible phenomenon is not some cosmic event happening millions of light years from us, but actually occurs within storm clouds in our atmosphere at altitudes low enough for a commercial airliner to pass through.

CNN’s Chad Myers points out the real danger with “dark lightning” is not from a traditional bolt of energy, but an unleashing of exponentially high amounts of X-rays and gamma rays.

If an airplane accidentally ends up in a storm with this dark lightning, the radiation doses for passengers would be equivalent to about 10 chest X-rays if the plane flies at the top of the storm, researchers calculated.

But, researcher Joseph Dwyer said in a statement, "near the middle of the storms, the radiation dose could be about 10 times larger, comparable to some of the largest doses received during medical procedures and roughly equal to a full-body CT scan."

Researchers do not yet know how often, if ever, this situation would happen, but scientists are investigating the issue. Dwyer and colleagues presented their findings at a  press conference at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, this week.

Bottom line: “dark lightning” is nothing to fear. You can only be struck by it if you are flying directly through a thunderstorm, a situation pilots usually try to avoid.

Watch the video above for more.

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Filed under: Climate • On Earth
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. vikingwoman

    So dark lightning is really the energy that's stored inside the storm clouds! That energy then sends potent lightfingers in a flash to earth, because it can't be contained & must expend itself! Interresting!!

    April 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
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    April 14, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  3. Chris Barry

    "exponentially high amounts..."
    Do you know what the word "exponentially" means?

    April 13, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  4. Adambomb

    I wonder if this "dark purple haze" in the video bit implied Saint Elmo's Fire, which is an electrical phenomenon sometimes visible in certain conditions where a blue or purplish electrical haze manifests around objects. Not to suggest that all Saint Elmo's Fire is caused by radiation, but I'm wondering if perhaps a radiation strike could induce it.

    April 12, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  5. Mudshark

    It must be from flying at FL370 with the flaps extended and the landing gear down.

    April 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  6. Zoglet

    This is why we need lead lined planes!

    April 12, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  7. asdrel

    Dark Lightning...not as strong as the Light side of Lightning, but easier, more seductive...

    April 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • ed dugan

      My you are a racist! I guess I am too since I always preferred white lightning.

      April 12, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
      • Dave

        Haha, I like how Asdrel makes a Star Wars joke, and you use that as an excuse to show off some good ol' fashioned racism. Classic United States.

        April 12, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
      • allenwoll

        Dave is a dummy !

        April 14, 2013 at 5:30 am |
  8. John

    This probably happens when flying near or in a storm and no one knows about it.

    April 12, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  9. Joe

    This happened to me. It's how I got my superpowers.

    April 12, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  10. hingedlwnb

    Segregated lightning.

    April 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Joe

      Typical meteorological racism. Lightning of color?

      April 12, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Ed Stevens

      Can't all lighting just get along...? RK

      April 12, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  11. vbscript2

    "You can only be struck by it if you are flying directly through a thunderstorm, a situation pilots usually try to avoid."

    Now that's an understatement. If an airplane is flying directly through the middle of a thunderstorm, the radiation dose should be the least of your concerns.

    April 12, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Joe

      No one has e ER survived the fly-thru to complain about he 10 chest x-rays.

      April 12, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  12. samuelprime

    I'll take the 10 chest x-rays. Should make a good investment for my future.
    Happy Dark Lightening to all, and to all a happy Shabbat Shalom.

    April 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  13. Maximus Lovelace

    What about those hurricane-chasing research planes?

    April 12, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • vbscript2

      Even those avoid flying through thunderstorms to the maximum extent possible. They fly over the hurricane, then down into the eye where the winds are calm.

      April 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  14. Doug

    I've read some of the articles about this, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around there being enough energy in a lightning burst to produce radiation of the high energy variety such as gamma and x-rays. Just when you thought you couldn't be surprised by Nature locally, it let's you know that something was going on all the time and you didn't have a inkling at all.

    April 12, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • StopTheStoooopid

      Good observation, Doug. Or not.... 🙂

      Seriously, I love it when something like this is discovered. It should cause the know-it-alls in our lives to stop thinking so arrogantly.

      April 12, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Quite true. Scientists are puzzled, as well. There is some speculation that there may be an interaction between particles in a thunderstorm and cosmic rays, but it isn't very strong. There's no question, though, that thunderstorms emit gamma rays; they've been observed with satellites, and new observations scheduled to occur shortly may provide higher resolution views of such events that might help pin down a cause.

      April 12, 2013 at 7:03 pm |


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