Chapter Seven – Nature’s Electrode
Have you ever wondered what causes lightning? There’s no wire in the sky, no battery terminal, so where do those giant sparks come from? What’s going on up there?
Don’t expect an answer if you ask. Science seems to avoid the issue. In fact, you won’t find a real explanation outside of the Electric Universe.
The following image is from NOAA, and portrays the consensus theory. As you can see, it shows electrons collecting into a funnel, like marbles in a sink, accelerating down a slippery slope into what looks like a drain. Apparently gravity is hard at work, as usual in the consensus world.
This came from a popular science blog, authored by a physicist, no less. The article did point out that a bolt of lightning needs a billion-trillion electrons, or electron marbles as they like to portray them. But it didn’t even try to explain this drainpipe business. Where do we see electricity act like that?
The consensus notion (it shouldn’t be considered a theory) is that charge builds in thunderstorms because of static electricity. Hail stones and rain colliding in the updraft generates the static charge, like when you rub a balloon against your hair, or shuffle your feet on the carpet. We’ve all seen five-mile long sparks come out of our fingertips when we reach in the clothes dryer, right?
Positive and negative, statically generated charged particles separate into layers according to the consensus notion – it’s never talked about how this happens. The layers where they are found “pooling” are at distinct thermal boundaries. So it’s thought these thermal boundary layers somehow keep the pools of charge apart, except when they fall into the drainpipe.
It’s a non-answer answer. No one has generated lightning by stirring hot and cold air around and rubbing hailstones together. Generating arcs even a fraction of the size of a lightning bolt generally requires lots of large gauge copper wire, big generators, and courage.
Nor has anyone stratified layers of arcing static charge in atmosphere using wind and humidity. The consensus explanations are scientifically inadequate. Considering lightning was first studied by one of the pioneers of modern science, Ben Franklin, over two hundred and fifty years ago, it’s absurd that science still can’t explain what is going on.
One of the problems is depicted in the above NOAA image of a super-cell, where layers of charge are shown stratified inside the cloud. To acquire enough charge for a single lightning bolt – a billion-trillion electrons worth – the charge density required implies a plasma is involved.
You can call this simple, deductive reasoning. It only takes 1% of neutral air to be ionized for it to behave as a plasma. A billion-trillion electrons has to be concentrated in the cloud more than that before it can spit a thirty-thousand amp, sixty-thousand degree, five kilometer long column of fire. Lightning genesis requires a plasma, because that is what forms the “electrode” in the sky. But you’ll never hear that from NOAA.
So forget them and let’s consider how, why and where plasma forms to play a role in making lightning.
Earth’s atmosphere is an electric circuit. It carries charge, current and voltage. The air is a weak conductor with a variable, vertical current between the ground and the ionosphere of 1 – 3 pico-amps per square meter. The resistance of the atmosphere is 200 ohms. The “clear sky” voltage potential averages 200-thousand volts between Earth and sky.
At any given moment, there are about 2,000 lightning storms occurring worldwide. To create lightning, the electric field potential must overcome the dielectric breakdown of air at 3 million volts per meter. It can do this because the electric field in a thunderstorm jumps to 300-million volts. A typical lightning bolt momentarily delivers about 30,000 amps to ground. The collective current from a typical storm delivers an average current from .5 to 1 amp.
Therefore, the circuit is completed – Earth to sky, and sky to ground. Only it isn’t, because there is also an exchange from atmosphere to space, and space to atmosphere. This has yet to be accurately measured, or understood. The existence of plasma discharges from thunderstorms to space, called Sprites, Elves and Gnomes for their brief and ethereal appearance, is a relatively recent discovery. Their power and frequency is still an immature study.
Cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, adding charge continuously. The rate Earth is exposed to solar wind fluctuates widely, both because the Solar current fluctuates and so does the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. Sometimes the shield it provides moves around, letting more cosmic rays enter through “holes”.
Because of this variability, we really can’t say we understand how much current is entering, or leaving Earth’s atmospheric system from space.
The ground also carries potential that varies. Except for the monochrome view of seismic returns, we can’t even see what is below the Earth’s crust to comprehend the flow of current there. Nor whether, how, or where Earth’s current might enter the atmosphere. For electricity, boundary layers like the Earth’s crust isn’t an impermeable barrier, it’s an electrode.
There is a “cavity” defined by the surface of the Earth and the inner edge of the ionosphere. It’s been calculated that at any moment, the total charge residing in this cavity is 500,000 coulombs. The 2,000 concurrent lightning storms, each about an amp-and-a-half, means this worldwide charge is flowing at about 3000 amps between the ground and sky.
Electromagnetic waves reflect from the boundary of the cavity – the ground and ionosphere – and establish quasi-standing electromagnetic waves at resonant frequencies. W. O. Schumann predicted the resonant properties of the cavity in 1952, and they were first detected in 1954. They are called Schumann’s resonances and are measured as broadband electromagnetic impulses at frequencies in the range of 5 to 50 Hz.
The atmosphere is undeniably electric. It’s not a few ions benignly floating around in the air, but a globally active and coherent current flow. What should that tell us about lightning? Mustn’t it also be part of this coherent resonant system. Doesn’t it beg for a better model than marbles in a drainpipe?
Fortunately, there is a model to look to. It’s called electronics.
Atmospheric arcs created in a circuit are generally recognized to occur by thermionic emission. Everyone has seen a hot cathode arcing, as in a welding arc, where electrons are freed from the metal surface of the electrode by heat. The metal is heated by its own resistance to current, and begins emitting electrons above a certain temperature threshold specific to the electrode material. The temperature for many materials is thousands of degrees.
Another form of discharge less well recognized is field emission, or cold cathode emissions. They do not generate electrons by thermionics. The electrode warms, but not appreciably because heat is not what frees the electrons. It’s the electric field strength – a high voltage potential, that strips electrons from whatever material is present, including the air itself.
When this happens, the field forms ionic matter into a plasma structure, called a corona. Corona is the electrode in the sky that discharges lightning.
Coronal discharge is used in a variety of ways in modern technology. It requires a high voltage, which is precisely what is present in a thunderstorm – 300 million volts, or three orders of magnitude stronger than in clear weather. One would think that for an electrical storm that spits five mile long arcs, this factor would be considered in the structure and actions of the storm.
Not so, say the consensus. It’s caused by layers of cold, dry air and hot, humid air colliding, convection to stir it up, some hail to rub together, and viola… there be electricity.
Corona is truly the only known electrical phenomena that can result in a non-thermionic discharge under atmospheric conditions. The electric field rips the air into a plasma and the plasma forms a corona. It’s an integral part of the thermoelectric current and the generator of lightning.
Corona occurs in a layer perpendicular to the electric field, where the field strips electrons from atoms, sending them downward at near the speed of light along the field gradient, to collide inevitably with another atom.
The collision strips more electrons free to follow the electric field and leave behind ions. The region where electrons are stripped, leaving ionic matter, is a cold plasma, which self organizes into a corona, because that is what an excited, discharging plasma does.
Free electrons continue the process of collision in what is called an avalanche. Avalanche is portrayed in the step-leader process depicted in the image, and is a witnessed precursor to a lightning bolt.
The avalanche is one half of the picture, however. Lightning comes from below, as much as from above. The electric field also pools positive ions on the ground below the storm, which itself becomes a cold, partial-plasma corona. Ionic streamers, filaments of positively charged air from this corona, stretch up the electric field towards the clouds. A lightning bolt occurs when the cascading step leader and streamer meet, completing a plasma channel.
None of this is seen with the naked eye. It’s all dark current up to this point.
The lightning channel is complete when the avalanche connects with a ground streamer. The connection allows a dump of electrons from the corona to ground. Then, heavier, and significantly slower ions, carry up the channel in a return stroke.
The return stroke can be seen in the image as the bright flash that occurs the moment the first tendril of the avalanche current strikes Earth, leaving only one path glowing after the flash.
Corona provides the reservoir of charge and the dark current mechanism for avalanche required to make an arc. This is what is missing in the consensus notions.
It’s also worth noting – when you see a news report about lightning killing a herd of cows, elk, or reindeer, they are always found piled together. The reporter will say, they were huddled together for warmth in the storm, or some such. The reason is they were all part of the positive coronal return stroke – as charged bodies, they got pulled into a pile by the lightning.
Water is self-ionizing. Water in its liquid state undergoes auto-ionization when water molecules combine – as in condensation – to form one hydroxide anion (OH-) and one hydronium cation (H3O+). Water can further be ionized by impurity, such as carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid. Therefore, water condensing into clouds in a monster electric field provides an ionization event. The E-field strips the ions apart as they form.
Water in a thunderstorm goes through all of it’s phases. From water vapor, to cloud condensate, to rain droplet, to ice. The structure of a thunderstorm is oriented vertically around a large central updraft. The phase changes occur in layered strata of increasingly colder temperatures.
Water can become supersaturated – rising above 100% relative humidity if air is rapidly cooled, for example, by rising suddenly in an updraft. The supersaturation instability provides another opportunity for ionization.
Ice is typically a positive charge carrier, meaning that current flows over its surface in streams of positive ions. Flash freezing water onto ice, as hail stones grow, provides another opportunity for ionization.
Each layer of air in a storm has different temperature, humidity, pressure and velocity, transporting different phases of water at different partial pressures, which means the conductivity of the air is changing too. This effect we discussed already as the cause of the thermoelectric engine in the thunderstorm.
If you know any commercial, or military pilots who have flown through the heart of thunderstorms, ask them if they saw the corona themselves, glowing on parts of the airplane.
This is still only part of the matrix of cause and effect that makes thunderstorms. The storm clouds are a corona – the interior of the clouds contain cold plasma. Corona are the result of current in the updraft driven by the thermoelectric effect, and water condensing and freezing. All of the effects of lightning, tornado, rain and downburst wind is a form of electrical discharge from the corona.
The specifics of a tornado will come next in the discussion. There is more to discuss about lightning and winds, also. There are different types of lightning which come from different corona, but we’ll pick-up on that when we get into geology.