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Science File

Photo Captures Lightning Spire

June 28, 2003|Allison M. Heinrichs | Times Staff Writer

Taiwanese scientists have succeeded in photographing and measuring an elusive inverted form of lightning -- gigantic spires of light and electricity rising 56 miles into the ionosphere.

The lightning was detected during a thunderstorm over the South China Sea last summer, the scientists reported in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Unlike regular lightning, which usually travels from a thundercloud to the ground, these gigantic jets of lightning bolts burst from the top of a thundercloud, shooting up into the ionosphere, an electrified region of Earth's outer atmosphere. The bolts then branched out 25 miles in diameter at the top.

The events seem to be limited to oceanic thunderstorms, though the reason for this is not clearly understood, said Victor Pasko, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Penn State University and author of a related article in Nature.

"The interesting feature is that these jets did radiate very strong electromagnetic pulses," Pasko said.

The pulses are intense bursts of energy that propagate away from the lightning bolt. The electrical currents created by these events are as strong as the most powerful lightning discharges ever recorded on Earth.

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