Photonuclear reactions triggered by lightning discharge

Published online:


Lightning and thunderclouds are natural particle accelerators1. Avalanches of relativistic runaway electrons, which develop in electric fields within thunderclouds2,3, emit bremsstrahlung γ-rays. These γ-rays have been detected by ground-based observatories4,5,6,7,8,9, by airborne detectors10 and as terrestrial γ-ray flashes from space10,11,12,13,14. The energy of the γ-rays is sufficiently high that they can trigger atmospheric photonuclear reactions10,15,16,17,18,19 that produce neutrons and eventually positrons via β+ decay of the unstable radioactive isotopes, most notably 13N, which is generated via 14N + γ → 13N + n, where γ denotes a photon and n a neutron. However, this reaction has hitherto not been observed conclusively, despite increasing observational evidence of neutrons7,20,21 and positrons10,22 that are presumably derived from such reactions. Here we report ground-based observations of neutron and positron signals after lightning. During a thunderstorm on 6 February 2017 in Japan, a γ-ray flash with a duration of less than one millisecond was detected at our monitoring sites 0.5–1.7 kilometres away from the lightning. The subsequent γ-ray afterglow subsided quickly, with an exponential decay constant of 40–60 milliseconds, and was followed by prolonged line emission at about 0.511 megaelectronvolts, which lasted for a minute. The observed decay timescale and spectral cutoff at about 10 megaelectronvolts of the γ-ray afterglow are well explained by de-excitation γ-rays from nuclei excited by neutron capture. The centre energy of the prolonged line emission corresponds to electron–positron annihilation, providing conclusive evidence of positrons being produced after the lightning.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    , & High-energy atmospheric physics: terrestrial gamma-ray flashes and related phenomena. Space Sci. Rev. 173, 133–196 (2012)

  2. 2.

    , & Runaway electron mechanism of air breakdown and preconditioning during a thunderstorm. Phys. Lett. A 165, 463–468 (1992)

  3. 3.

    The relativistic feedback discharge model of terrestrial gamma ray flashes. J. Geophys. Res. 117, A02308 (2012)

  4. 4.

    , & Observation of gamma-ray dose increase associated with winter thunderstorm and lightning activity. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 4324 (2002)

  5. 5.

    et al. A ground level gamma-ray burst observed in association with rocket-triggered lightning. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L05119 (2004)

  6. 6.

    et al. Detection of high-energy gamma rays from winter thunderclouds. Phys. Rev. Lett. 99, 165002 (2007)

  7. 7.

    et al. Ground-based observations of thunderstorm-correlated fluxes of high-energy electrons, gamma rays, and neutrons. Phys. Rev. D 82, 043009 (2010)

  8. 8.

    et al. Observation of a gamma-ray flash at ground level in association with a cloud-to-ground lightning return stroke. J. Geophys. Res. 117, A10303 (2012)

  9. 9.

    et al. Observation of thundercloud-related gamma rays and neutrons in Tibet. Phys. Rev. D 85, 092006 (2012)

  10. 10.

    et al. Positron clouds within thunderstorms. J. Plasma Phys. 81, 475810405 (2015)

  11. 11.

    et al. Discovery of intense gamma-ray flashes of atmospheric origin. Science 264, 1313–1316 (1994)

  12. 12.

    , , & Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes observed up to 20 MeV. Science 307, 1085–1088 (2005)

  13. 13.

    et al. Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes as powerful particle accelerators. Phys. Rev. Lett. 106, 018501 (2011)

  14. 14.

    et al. First results on terrestrial gamma ray flashes from the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor. J. Geophys. Res. 115, A07323 (2010)

  15. 15.

    Generation of neutrons in giant upward atmospheric discharges. Sov. JETP Lett. 84, 285–288 (2006)

  16. 16.

    Neutron generation mechanism correlated with lightning discharges. Geomagn. Aeron. 47, 664–670 (2007)

  17. 17.

    , & Neutron production in terrestrial gamma ray flashes. J. Geophys. Res. 115, A00E19 (2010)

  18. 18.

    , , & Analysis of fundamental interactions capable of producing neutrons in thunderstorms. Phys. Rev. D 89, 093010 (2014)

  19. 19.

    , , & Localization of the source of terrestrial neutron bursts detected in thunderstorm atmosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 115, A00E28 (2010)

  20. 20.

    , , & Neutron generation in lightning bolts. Nature 313, 773–775 (1985)

  21. 21.

    et al. Strong flux of low-energy neutrons produced by thunderstorms. Phys. Rev. Lett. 108, 125001 (2012)

  22. 22.

    et al. On-ground detection of an electron-positron annihilation line from thunderclouds. Phys. Rev. E 93, 021201(R) (2016)

  23. 23.

    et al. Long-duration γ ray emissions from 2007 and 2008 winter thunderstorms. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D09113 (2011)

  24. 24.

    et al. Ground-level observation of a terrestrial gamma ray flash initiated by a triggered lightning. J. Geophys. Res. 121, 6511–6533 (2016)

  25. 25.

    & Lightning: Physics and Effects (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003)

  26. 26.

    , , & On the field-to-current conversion factors for large bipolar lightning discharge events in winter thunderstorms in Japan. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 6898–6907 (2015)

  27. 27.

    et al. Large bipolar lightning discharge events in winter thunderstorms in Japan. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 555–566 (2014)

  28. 28.

    & The evolution and explosion of massive stars. II. Explosive hydrodynamics and nucleosynthesis. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 101, 181–235 (1995)

  29. 29.

    & Observations of winter lightning to an isolate tower. Res. Lett. Atmos. Elect. 12, 57–60 (1992)

  30. 30.

    et al. Geant4 — a simulation toolkit. Nucl. Instrum. Methods A 506, 250–303 (2003)

  31. 31.

    A review of positive and bipolar lightning discharges. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 84, 767–776 (2003)

  32. 32.

    , , & Bipolar lightning in winter at Maki, Japan. J. Geophys. Res. 94, 13191–13195 (1989)

  33. 33.

    Search for neutron generation by lightning. J. Geophys. Res. 80, 5005–5009 (1975)

  34. 34.

    & Observation of neutron bursts associated with atmospheric lightning discharge. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 6867–6869 (1999)

  35. 35.

    , , , & Observation of 2.45 MeV neutrons correlated with natural atmospheric lightning discharges by lead-free Gulmarg neutron monitor. J. Geophys. Res. 121, 692–703 (2016)

  36. 36.

    et al. Observation of gamma ray bursts at ground level under the thunderclouds. Phys. Lett. B 758, 286–291 (2016)

  37. 37.

    , , , & Numerical analysis of 2010 high-mountain (Tien-Shan) experiment on observations of thunderstorm-related low-energy neutron emissions. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 7905–7912 (2013)

  38. 38.

    , , & On amplifications of photonuclear neutron flux in thunderstorm atmosphere and possibility of detecting them. Sov. JETP Lett. 97, 291–296 (2013); erratum 97, 505 (2013); erratum 99, 242 (2014)

  39. 39.

    , , & Remarks on recent results on neutron production during thunderstorms. Phys. Rev. D 86, 093017 (2012)

  40. 40.

    International Atomic Energy Agency. Handbook on Photonuclear Data for Applications: Cross-sections and Spectra: Final Report of a Co-ordinated Research Project 1996–1999 52–75 (IAEA, 2000)

  41. 41.

    et al. JENDL-4.0: a new library for nuclear science and engineering. J. Nucl. Sci. Technol. 48, 1–30 (2011)

  42. 42.

    & Introduction to Nuclear Engineering 3rd edn, Ch. 3 (IAEA, 2001)

  43. 43.

    et al. The 511 keV emission from positron annihilation in the Galaxy. Rev. Mod. Phys. 83, 1001–1056 (2011)

Download references


We thank the members of the radiation safety group of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station, TEPCO Inc., for providing observation sites, H. Miyahara, N. Kawanaka and H. Ohgaki for discussions, H. Sakurai, M. Niikura and the Sakurai group members at RIKEN Nishina Center for providing Bi4Ge3O12 scintillation crystals, T. Tamagawa for project support, G. Bowers, M. Kamogawa and D. Smith for suggestions on our interpretation, S. Otsuka and H. Kato for supporting the detector developments, and the RIKEN Advanced Center for Computing and Communication for use of the HOKUSAI GreatWave supercomputing system for Monte Carlo simulations. This research is supported by JSPS/MEXT KAKENHI grant numbers 15K05115, 15H03653 and 16H06006, by SPIRITS 2017 and Hakubi projects of Kyoto University, and by the joint research programme of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research (ICRR), The University of Tokyo. Our project is also supported by crowdfunding (‘Thundercloud Project’, using the academic crowdfunding platform ‘academist’), and we are grateful to Y. Shikano, Y. Araki, M. T. Hayashi, N. Matsumoto, T. Enoto, K. Hayashi, S. Koga, T. Hamaji, Y. Torisawa, S. Sawamura, J. Purser, S. Suehiro, S. Nakane, M. Konishi, H. Takami, T. Sawara and all of the backers of Thundercloud Project. We are grateful to M. Sakano of Wise Babel Ltd for linguistic help and to the ‘adachi design laboratory’ for supporting the crowdfunding acvitity. The background image in Fig. 1 was provided by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

Author information


  1. The Hakubi Center for Advanced Research and Department of Astronomy, Kyoto University, Kyoto 606-8302, Japan.

    • Teruaki Enoto
  2. Department of Physics, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo, Tokyo 113-0033, Japan

    • Yuuki Wada
    • , Yoshihiro Furuta
    • , Kazuhiro Nakazawa
    •  & Kazufumi Okuda
  3. High Energy Astrophysics Laboratory, RIKEN Nishina Center, Saitama 351-0198, Japan

    • Yuuki Wada
    •  & Toshio Nakano
  4. Research Center for the Early Universe, The University of Tokyo, Tokyo 113-0033, Japan

    • Kazuhiro Nakazawa
  5. 55 Devonshire Road, Singapore 239855, Singapore

    • Takayuki Yuasa
  6. MAXI Team, RIKEN, Saitama 351-0198, Japan

    • Kazuo Makishima
  7. Graduate School of Science, Hokkaido University, Sapporo 060-0808, Japan

    • Mitsuteru Sato
  8. Department of Applied Energy, Graduate School of Engineering, Nagoya University, Aichi 464-8603, Japan

    • Yousuke Sato
  9. Advanced Institute for Computational Science, RIKEN, Hyogo 650-0047, Japan.

    • Daigo Umemoto
  10. Nuclear Science and Engineering Center, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Ibaraki 319-1195, Japan

    • Harufumi Tsuchiya


  1. Search for Teruaki Enoto in:

  2. Search for Yuuki Wada in:

  3. Search for Yoshihiro Furuta in:

  4. Search for Kazuhiro Nakazawa in:

  5. Search for Takayuki Yuasa in:

  6. Search for Kazufumi Okuda in:

  7. Search for Kazuo Makishima in:

  8. Search for Mitsuteru Sato in:

  9. Search for Yousuke Sato in:

  10. Search for Toshio Nakano in:

  11. Search for Daigo Umemoto in:

  12. Search for Harufumi Tsuchiya in:


T.E., Y.W., Y.F., K.O., K.N., T.Y., T.N. and H.T. were responsible for the detector developments, data analyses and interpretation; T.E. is the project leader and wrote the draft of the manuscript; Y.W. made a major contribution to the detector development, installation and, in particular, analysis; Y.F. led the Monte Carlo simulations using Geant4; K.N. led the installation of the instruments at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in 2016 and the laboratory experiment outlined in Methods section ‘Initial flash’; T.Y. led the development of the new data acquisition system after 2015; D.U. provided the data from 2012; and M.S., Y.S., K.M. and H.T. contributed to the data interpretation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Teruaki Enoto.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks L. Babich and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data