Superbolts Carry Super Power: Details of a Rare Type of Lightning That Stretches Into Space

Superbolt Detections Annotated

Superbolt Detections 2012 – 2018

Scientists reveal details of a rare type of lightning that stretches into space.

A rare type of lightning has had scientists scratching their heads since the late 1970s. “Superbolts” are the most powerful lightning on Earth, with discharges so strong that they cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. The bolts also display geographic and seasonal attributes opposite that of regular lightning, adding to their mystery.

“We don’t understand yet how superbolts can be so powerful,” said Jean-François Ripoll, a senior scientist at the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) near Paris, France. And unlike traditional lightning, which occurs more often in summer and over land, superbolts occur more often in winter and over water. “We have no idea why,” he said.

Amid the many unknowns, scientists are using satellites to define the unusual attributes of superbolts. A 2020 study of optical satellite data showed that some of the brightest lightning—up to 1,000 times brighter than normal lightning—is indeed a physically unique type of lightning, and not due to error interpreting the measurement.

In a 2021 study, Ripoll and colleagues confirmed the extreme power of superbolts by measuring their electromagnetic waves. This electromagnetic phenomenon, they found, is not just limited to Earth’s atmosphere; it extends all the way into space.

Lightning is a natural source of electromagnetic energy extending down to the very low frequency (VLF) range. The scientists showed that the VLF waves transmitted to space by superbolts are much more powerful than those transmitted by typical lightning. “Electromagnetic waves like that are uncommon from lightning signals in space,” Ripoll said. “We were doubtful about that much power until we could associate it to a superbolt.”

To make the connection, the researchers worked to match space-based detections of superbolts with multiple ground-based detections. The map at the top of this page shows the detections of superbolts (energies greater than 1 megajoule) between 2012 and 2018. Blue dots are ground-based detections, from the World-Wide Lightning Location Network (a network of stations among over 50 universities and institutions directed by Robert Holzworth at the University of Washington), from the ECLAIR measurement campaign conducted from CEA ground stations, and from Metéorage ground stations. Purple dots are where space-based detections from NASA’s Van Allen Probes overlapped with ground detections.

Superbolt Wave Power

January 23, 2013

In this data set, two superbolts had sufficiently overlapping data from the ground and space for detailed study. One of those, noted by the large pink dot on the map, is shown on the spectrogram above. This plot shows the electric component of the superbolt’s electromagnetic signal detected from space.

Notice that the signals for the first two comma-shaped detections (red) are much more powerful than the subsequent signals. These two powerful waves are associated with the superbolt, followed by less powerful waves associated with numerous strokes of typical lightning.

“Some of these superbolts can have up to a 1,000 times more energy than typical lightning,” Ripoll said. Such bolts are capable of producing more damage than typical lightning if they were to strike the right spot on Earth.

In space, however, electromagnetic waves have a potentially useful application in that they can deflect the so-called “killer electrons” trapped in near-Earth space where they can damage the electronics of satellites in orbit. “Potentially this electromagnetic power can protect our assets from these electrons,” Ripoll said. “We study the waves, the electrons, and the wave-particle interactions for that reason. We are happy to know these waves are real and based in physics.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using data courtesy of Ripoll, J.-F., et al. (2021).

1 Comment on "Superbolts Carry Super Power: Details of a Rare Type of Lightning That Stretches Into Space"

  1. 2013 january 23rd no clock time given
    superbolts carry super power electromagnetic phenomena from earth atmosphere into space very low frequency optical lightning superbolt energies greater than 1 mega joule
    in winter over water the tyrrhenian sea west coast of italy first superbolt em wave
    time 00 1st the most powerful superbolt em wave
    500?? kilometres
    in winter over water the west coast of italy second superbolt em wave
    time 00.2 seconds 2nd the powerful superbolt em wave
    500?? kilometres
    in winter over water the east coast of italy the west coast of greece the adriatic sea third superbolt em wave
    time 02 seconds 3rd the lesser superbolt em wave over east coast of italy west coast of greece the adriatic sea plus numerous strokes of typical lightning
    ???? kilometres
    time 02.2 other lightning waves numerous strokes of typical lightning
    we study the waves the electrons and the wave particle interactions
    we measure and make computus of the earth at 12,000 kilometres
    we measure and make computus of the atmosphere at 30,000 kilometres
    we measure and make computus of both at 72,000 kilometres
    we measure the diameter of the magnetic field 90,000 kilometres 56,000 miles with modulation with earth proper motion movement
    we measure the solar wind buffer zone at 17 kilometres
    “When Earth is at perihelion nearest to the sun in January each year, it is about 147 million km (91 million miles) from the Sun.
    orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles 110,000 kilometres per hour
    superbolts carry super power electromagnetic phenomena from earth atmosphere into space how far out into space did they go
    12,000 kilometres up on earth ground not recorded
    30,000 kilometres up in the lower earth atmosphere troposphere stratopshere mesosphere exosphere thermosphere
    90,000 kilometres up into magnetosphere
    100,000 kilometres or more
    on january 23rd the suns equator is matched to earths -15 degrees south
    so italy roughly 40 to 44 degrees north is now 55 degrees 59 degrees above the suns equator full force of the solar wind force buffeted 17 kilometres at 90,000 kilometres out
    some of it must have swirled around at -15 degrees and travelled in a arc curve across the shield layer 17 kilometres deep wave front and for 5500 kilometres to +40 to 44 degrees north to hover and arrive at the tyrhennian sea area and blasted a superbolt across and down through the upper atmospheres layers
    perhaps a fault line on the adriatic plate allows deep iron core melt electrons leak up to meet the corona mass ejecta electrons and will you light my proton fire is the super bolts call

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