Posts Tagged upward lightning
My research on upward lightning has involved human-made tall objects such as communication towers, tall buildings and wind turbines. However, upward lightning from natural rock formations is also possible as the conditions that allow for upward lightning require an object that enhances the electric field locally due to its shape. Any object that protrudes above it surroundings can enhance the electric field and this is the basic concept that allows for air terminals in lightning protection systems to serve as more favorable attachment points for descending lightning leaders.
However, in the case of upward lightning, in which a leader initiates and travels upward toward the overlying thunderstorm charge region, studies have shown that tall objects have to be of suitable size and shape to initiate the leader. These studies indicate that objects require an “equivalent height” of at least 100 m (~300 ft) or in the case of wind turbines, need to be rotating, in order to experience upward lightning. Equivalent height takes into account the object’s shape and nearby ground topography as a narrow object (e.g., communications tower) can enhance the electric field more so than a broader object of the same height such as a much wider building or a sloping mountain. However, a small narrow tower on top of a sloping mountain can have a much greater equivalent height than the height of just the small tower considered separately.
In addition, upward lightning can be triggered by nearby lightning activity in which a component of a triggering flash causes a rapid electric field change over the tall object resulting in the initiation of an upward leader. Alternatively, upward lightning can be self-initiated in which an upward leader initiates from the tall object without a preceding triggering flash. In this case, the strength of the electric field and possibly the removal of corona space charge by the wind allows for the initiation of the upward leader. If there are multiple tall objects, self-initiation upward lightning tends to occur from only one of the tall objects, whereas lightning-triggered upward lightning flashes can see multiple tall objects initiate upward leaders during the same flash.
I have not investigated upward lightning from natural rock formations as it seems to occur much less frequently based on the amount of images and videos captured of such events. Communication towers and tall buildings can be prolific upward lightning producers so we focus our research on those.
Paul M. Smith (@PaulMSmithPhoto on Twitter), who is an incredibly skilled transient luminous event photographer, shared an image posted on Instagram that showed apparent upward lightning from some rock formations in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The image was captured at Mesa Arch, a beautiful arch that provides a wonderful framed sunrise canvas opportunity. The photographer was Chris Markes (@chrismarkes on Instagram). Because I had previously seen so few upward flashes from rock formations and the fact that these formations were in a canyon, which would be less favorable for electric field enhancement, I was skeptical of the validity of the image at first. However, Paul reached out to Chris and was able to obtain an approximate time of the event. With that information, I asked Chris Vagasky (@COweatherman on Twitter) who works for Vaisala, Inc. (@VaisalaGroup on Twitter) which operates the National Lightning Detection Network if he could see if there were any lightning events recorded. The data that he found strongly suggests that what Chris Markes recorded was in fact a lightning-triggered upward lightning flash that initiated upward positive leaders from at least three rock formations.
The data showed nine lightning events beginning at 005509 UT on 3 Oct 2022 (1855 MDT on 2 Oct 2022) and lasting just under 0.7 seconds. The first was a very strong 108.6 kA estimated peak current positive cloud ground return stroke 16 km south of the Airport Tower rock formation. This was followed by a -5.2 kA intracloud event close to the location of the return stroke. 326 ms after the +CG return stroke the first of seven small peak current negative intracloud events were recorded by the NLDN. All of these were less than -10 kA estimated peak current and all grouped within 400 m of Airport Tower as measured using Google Maps.
In the image captured by Chris, Airport Tower is the formation in which the middle lightning channel is attached and is 4.9 km from Mesa Arch. Monster Tower, to the right of Airport Rock in the image with the rightmost lightning channel attached is 2.3 km from Mesa Arch.
Based on the image and the NLDN data, I believe the nearby +CG flash caused the initiation of upward positive leaders from the rock formations, and in the case of the upward leader from Airport Tower, some of the upward positive leader branches decayed and subsequently formed recoil leaders in which the negative ends traveled back down the channel resulting in subsequent return strokes (if the main channel had also decayed) or impulsive m-components (if the main channel was still active). In the latter case, the negative end of the recoil leader would connect to the main channel at the branch point causing and impulsive current increase in the luminous main channel and branch. Below is an example of this process recorded by high-speed camera.
Our research has shown that the recoil leader generation and attachment process on decayed upward positive leader branches tend to register as low peak current negative intracloud events by the NLDN.
Regarding the topography and its potential to enhance the electric field locally, Airport Tower is 223 m taller than its lowest measured contour that encircles it (prominence height) and Monster Tower has a prominence height of 120 m. This suggests that they both have effective heights greater than 100 m as the canyon floor extends 8 km east and nearly 5 km to the south.
I would like to thank Chris Markes for allowing me to repost his image on my blog, Paul Smith for showing me Chris’ post as well as Chris Vagasky for sharing the lightning data.
This year I was able to capture upward lightning flashes from a newly installed wind turbine complex northeast of Newell, South Dakota as well as lightning associated with the monsoon season in the Colorado Plateau. There were also some spectacular lightning displays in the my home area in the Northern High Plains. Below are some of the images captured.
Standard- and high-speed video highlights from the 2021 storm season are now available on my YouTube channel.
Early in the morning of 26 June 2018 in southwest Kansas, something wonderful happened. A lightning flash occurred that caused additional lightning to rise up from 14 wind turbines filling the sky with blinding channels of light. Hank Schyma (an accomplished storm chaser, photographer/videographer and all around interesting guy also known as Pecos Hank) was there to witness this amazing spectacle and captured it on video. A huge mesoscale convective system had developed earlier in the evening, and he had positioned himself on the trailing side in hopes of capturing massive horizontally extensive lightning flashes that tend to develop in the trailing stratiform region. He was not disappointed. He witnessed numerous spectacular flashes and a number of these involved upward leaders developing from a wind turbine complex nearby. He reached out to me and other scientists to share his observations, and we were floored by what he captured.
I have been studying upward lightning flashes since 2004 primarily in Rapid City, South Dakota where there are 10 towers positioned along a ridgeline that runs through the middle of town.
In 2013, we participated in a project to observe upward lightning from a wind turbine farm in north central Kansas. We managed to capture a few events with one involving 4 wind turbines.
Our research, analysis and findings show that most upward flashes in the summer convective season are triggered by preceding nearby positive ground flashes and/or cloud flashes in which horizontally extensive negative leader activity passes nearby tall objects. The rapid electric field change from the negative leader activity or positive cloud-to-ground return stroke combined with the shape of the tall object, which enhances the electric field locally, results in the initiation or triggering of upward positive leaders from the objects.
I had always wondered just how many wind turbines could initiate upward leaders when triggered by a nearby flash. Hank’s capture showed that up to 14 wind turbines could initiate upward leaders in a single flash. As far as I know, this is the most that has been observed to date. This flash was truly a Perfect Upward Flash and followed the textbook on how preceding flashes can trigger upward leaders.
Hank’s video shows incloud brightening that propagates toward the camera and over the wind turbines. This is negative leader activity that frequently travels through layers of horizontal positive charge that build up in the trailing stratiform region of mesoscale convective complexes. Lightning develops as a bidirectional leader which ionizes the neutral air due to the strong electric field caused by charge regions within a thunderstorm. The bidirectional leader has a negative end that has a surplus of electrons and the a positive end with a deficit of electrons.
Often when the negative leaders travel a large distance, they tend to become cutoff from the other end of the leader. Due to the still present strong electric field, the cutoff segment, which is still conductive, can polarize and develop a new positive end resulting in new positive leader propagation and corresponding renewed negative leader growth. Frequently, the new positive leader end will travel to ground and connect causing a positive cloud-to-ground return stroke, and that is exactly what happened as recorded by Hank’s camera. Positive leaders propagate to ground on the right side of the video and connect to ground causing a return stroke. This return stroke, which involves an incredibly fast propagating region of rapid electron acceleration, heating and intense light emission, travels up the channel at about 1/3rd the speed of light and through to the negative end of the leader network that was overlying the wind turbines. The resulting electric field change causes positive leaders to initiate and grow from the highest of the wind turbine blades. These upward positive leaders travel upward driven by the newly modified electric field created by the return stroke.
To have so many upward positive leaders develop shows that the area covered by the triggering leader network and magnitude of the electric field change from the return stroke was very large influencing all the wind turbines nearly at once. It truly was a Perfect Upward Flash and something to behold.
I would like to thank Hank for sharing this video with me so I could share its explanation with all of you. He recently created an excellent video on How Lightning Works which you can see on his YouTube channel. It is definitely worth seeing and explains our latest scientific understanding of lightning using his amazing video and imagery.
On the night of 12 Apr 2012, the Bay Area of California experienced a storm that literally lit up the skies with upward lightning. Some iconic photographs and video were taken during this event which provided evidence that numerous tall objects developed upward leaders in response to nearby flashes. The foremost images that illustrated what happened that night were taken by Phil McGrew. He had his Canon 5D Mark III camera running continuously using 20 sec exposures. During two of these exposures, his camera captured upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge and additional structures on the east side of the Bay. For each of the two photographs that he posted, it is likely that all the upward leaders developed during the same flash that probably lasted less than one second. He was located in a tall building on the east side of San Francisco downtown looking east along the Bay Bridge.
Below are embedding links as provided by Phil’s Flickr page where he has posted two images. Click on the images to go to his Flickr page. The exif data on his Flickr page indicates that the first of the two images was taken at 8:38:29 pm PDT using ISO 100, f/10, 20 sec exposure and a 28 mm lens. In this image there appears to be 5 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 2 upward leaders from two separate structures on the east side of the bay (likely in the Oakland area).
Again based on the exif data, the second image that Phil captured was at 8:42:41 pm PDT (4 min and 12 sec later) and used the same camera settings. This image (which has rightfully received international acclaim) appears to show 6 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 4 additional leaders beyond the Bay Bridge likely from structures on the east side of the bay.
Phil’s photographs indicate they were separated by 4 min and 12 sec. Not know the time accuracy of Phil’s camera, we compared the indicated times and time difference between the two images with National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) data. Based on previous research findings, we suspected that these upward leaders were triggered by positive ground flashes (+CG) within 50 km of the Bay Bridge. Two very large estimated peak current +CG strokes were recorded at 3:39:59.425 and 3:44:12.332 pm PDT. They had estimated peak currents of +129.8 kA and +270.7 kA respectively and were separated by 4 min and 12.907 sec. There was a +27.8 kA stroke at 03:39:22.773 (37 min earlier of the first big +CG) and 2 -CG strokes at 03:40:32.843 and 03:42:21.957 fell within the time spaning the two large +CGs.
Below are GIS plots of the NLDN indicated return strokes and cloud events. The first figure shows the event location, event type by symbol (see legend) and estimated peak current based on relative symbol size. Notice the size of the +CG return stroke symbols relative to the other events.
The next figure shows the NLDN event locations and their times.
The last figure shows the NLDN events and a label of the estimated peak current.
We suspect that the upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge were positive polarity and developed following the large estimated peak current positive cloud-to-ground return strokes that occurred inside the Bay. These are examples of lightning triggered upward lightning in which the field change resulting from a preceding flash causes the development of upward leaders from nearby tall objects.
There were a number of other images from other people that showed upward leaders from tall objects during this same night and the other locations included the Golden Gate Bridge and tall buildings in Oakland. We suspect that these upward leaders also developed during the same triggering flashes that caused the upward leaders to develop from the Bay Bridge.
On the night of 8/24/11, a leading-line/trailing stratiform mesoscale convective system developed and moved over Toronto, Canada. The heart of the trailing stratiform region passed directly over the 553 m tall CN Tower and the people of Toronto were treated to an incredible light show as the tower unleashed at least 34 upward flashes over the span of an hour. Wilke and Elizabeth See-Tho graciously provided me some video of the event and my analysis suggests that all of the upward flashes were triggered by preceding flash activity (lightning-triggered lightning) similar to what I observe in Rapid City, South Dakota. For each case there was clearly in-cloud flash activity that preceded the upward leader initiation. In addition, recoil leaders were visible in a large majority of the upward leaders suggesting they were positive polarity.
Below is a composite image where I stacked selected images from the See-Tho’s video. As you can see, the CN Tower was literally ablaze with lightning leaders over the span of the storm.
Below is the edited video provided by the See-Tho’s. This version plays in real time showing all 34 upward flashes and one spider lightning flash.
Below is the the same video sped up.
Below is video of each flash played at normal speed and in slow motion (total runtime 34 min).
Although I have not obtained nor analyzed lightning data for this storm, I suspect that a majority of the upward flashes were triggered by a preceding +CG flash within 50 km of the tower. Horizontally extensive positive charge regions that form in the trailing stratiform regions of MCSs serve as potential wells for negative leaders that can travel upwards of 100 km. This horizontally extensive negative leader development can take place during an intracloud flash and/or following a +CG return stroke. The negative field change (atmospheric electricity sign convention) experienced at a tall tower by the approach of negative leaders or nearby +CG return stroke can initiate upward propagating positive leaders. The conditions apparently were ideal for this triggering process and weather radar shows this was likely the case.
Below is a radar loop (base reflectivity, 0.5 degree tilt) of the storm development and passage over the CN Tower spanning from 00:02 – 03:41 UT, 8/25/11. The See-Tho’s stated that the first upward flash was shortly after 02:00 UT. This places the leading line convective region just east of the CN Tower with the tower in an area of decrease reflectivity between 30-40 dBz. The tower would stay under this level of reflectivity (i.e., the trailing stratiform precipitation area) until 03:41 UT. The last upward flash the See-Tho’s recorded was at approximately 03:06, but they thought there were a few more upward flashes that followed after they stopped filming.
This truly was a perfect storm to produce upward lightning flashes. I suspect that many transient luminous events (TLEs) in the form of halos and/or sprites may have also been produced by the very same triggering flashes responsible for initiating the upward leaders. The CN Tower is instrumented to measure current through the tower and there is an array of optical sensors including a high-speed camera within 3 km of the tower. Hopefully, all the instrumentation was operational and an outstanding data set was captured.