Science

Researchers map timing and location of rare lightning "superbolts"

Researchers map timing and loc...
Superbolts release a thousand times more energy (at least) than the average lightning strike and tend to occur mostly over oceans and seas
Superbolts release a thousand times more energy (at least) than the average lightning strike and tend to occur mostly over oceans and seas
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Superbolts release a thousand times more energy (at least) than the average lightning strike and tend to occur mostly over oceans and seas
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Superbolts release a thousand times more energy (at least) than the average lightning strike and tend to occur mostly over oceans and seas
A map of the data gathered by Holzworth and his team, showing lightning strikes whose energy was over a million joules, which qualified them as superbolts
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A map of the data gathered by Holzworth and his team, showing lightning strikes whose energy was over a million joules, which qualified them as superbolts
Bob Holzworth atop UW’s Atmospheric Sciences building with the test lightning sensor
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Bob Holzworth atop UW’s Atmospheric Sciences building with the test lightning sensor
The dots represent superbolts, lightning with an energy of at least 1 million joules, while red dots are particularly large superbolts, with an energy of more than 2 million joules
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The dots represent superbolts, lightning with an energy of at least 1 million joules, while red dots are particularly large superbolts, with an energy of more than 2 million joules

While lightning strikes are generally considered to be a summer phenomenon, the rare and powerful superbolt form doesn't follow suit, with new research revealing these electric monsters not only occur much later in the year, but seem to prefer open seas to land.

Lightning bolts are pretty impressive, powerful things on their own, but superbolts release a thousand times more energy (at least) than the average lightning strike, making those familiar summer spectacles look like birthday sparklers in comparison. They're also incredibly rare according to Robert Holzworth, professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington (UW), lead author on the paper published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres

So, how rare are superbolts? Well, according to the data gathered by Holzworth and his team – which looked at 2 billion lightning strokes over an eight year period – around one in 250,000 strokes (less than a thousandth of a percent) are superbolts. So, pretty rare then.

The dots represent superbolts, lightning with an energy of at least 1 million joules, while red dots are particularly large superbolts, with an energy of more than 2 million joules
The dots represent superbolts, lightning with an energy of at least 1 million joules, while red dots are particularly large superbolts, with an energy of more than 2 million joules

The study was made possible by the fact that the World Wide Lightning Location Network – managed by Holzworth and UW – has around a hundred lightning detection stations worldwide, and is able to access a huge amount of data. The teams used a kind of triangulation to measure the size and location of a lightning bolt, achieved by observing the timing of strikes detected by three or more of the network's stations. The team then compared its data against observations from Maryland-based Earth Networks and from the New Zealand government's MetService.

As well as accurately identifying superbolts, the research found that they tend to occur mainly over oceans and seas, the opposite of regular lightning. Their timing also didn't fit in with the usual three major lightning ‘chimneys’ which occur during summer thunderstorms over the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Superbolts on the other hand tended to occur most often between November and February, and far more common in the Northern hemisphere, especially over the Mediterranean Sea.

Bob Holzworth atop UW’s Atmospheric Sciences building with the test lightning sensor
Bob Holzworth atop UW’s Atmospheric Sciences building with the test lightning sensor

"Ninety percent of lightning strikes occur over land, but superbolts happen mostly over the water going right up to the coast," says Holzworth, who's been tracking lightning for almost two decades. "In fact, in the northeast Atlantic Ocean you can see Spain and England's coasts nicely outlined in the maps of superbolt distribution."

The reason for these newly observed patterns isn't yet quite clear and scientists are still unsure about what goes into creating superbolts in the first place. Some researchers have suggested sunspots and similar phenomenon as a possibility, but more science needs to be thrown at this to ascertain specific causes.

The paper can be found in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres and an interactive map of the research data can be viewed here.

Source: University of Washington

7 comments
ColinChambers
Superbolts these patterns observed over the northern hemisphere , are they consistent with a certain time of the day or night ? If night time A possibility link to dark energy? Dark photons emitted from Starlight are 99% more active during this period to form some sort of reaction with hi voltage electrons , conduction density void. Jacktar
guzmanchinky
I never even knew there was such a thing until just now.
Expanded Viewpoint
When someone actually finds some "dark" matter or energy, I want them to send me some of it, I will pay any price requested upon delivery!! What I would like to know, is just how these lightning detectors work! Do they sense sound waves? Magnetic fields generated by the flow of electricity? Light flashes? Randy
Captain Obvious
Conducting, flat areas such as salt water seas will have the highest voltage standoff, so I'd expect more potential to build up there.
Pmeon
They are occurring over the oceans because the charge is produced by water vapour condensing. More fuel = more voltage. This site has active tracking http://map.blitzortung.org/#3.39/-22.12/139.82
paul314
Any superbolts over prairies? That would go with the idea that flat lets you build up higher potentials.
ColinChambers
Dark matter has a second function with gravity ? Dark energy is the void of space, depleted hydrogen atoms @ 1 trillion angle-ons Per hydrogen atom . The Russians process this energy into massless crystals Expanded viewpoint apply now . It takes 10 years to grow one crystal