Article

Sprite streamer initiation from natural mesospheric structures

  • Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7540 (2015)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms8540
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Abstract

Sprites are large, luminous electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere caused by intense cloud-to-ground lightning flashes, manifesting an impulsive coupling mechanism between lower and upper atmospheric regions. Their dynamics are governed by filamentary streamer discharges whose propagation properties have been well studied by past work. However, how they are initiated is still under active debate. It has recently been concluded that ionospheric/mesospheric inhomogeneities are required for their initiation, but it is an open question as to what the sources of those inhomogeneities are. Here we present numerical simulation results to demonstrate that naturally-existing, small-scale mesospheric structures such as those created by gravity waves via instability and breaking are viable sources. The proposed theory is supported by a recent, unique high-speed observation from aircraft flying at 14-km altitude. The theory naturally explains many aspects of observed sprite streamer initiation and has important implications for future observational work.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Jonathan Snively for various discussions on gravity waves. This research was supported in part by NSF grants AGS-0955379 and AGS-1348046, and a DARPA NIMBUS grant HR0011–10–1–0061. The 2011 aircraft sprite mission (data presented in Fig. 4 ) was sponsored by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK).

Figure 4: Streamer initiation from perturbations with 10-km wavelength.
Figure 4

The simulation is initialized with E0=0.6Ek, A=0.5 and k=2π/(10 km). The streamer initiation delays about 14 ms more than the previous streamer initiation case.

Author information

Author notes

    • Joseph R. Dwyer

    Present address: Department of Physics, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

Affiliations

  1. Department of Physics and Space Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Florida 32901, USA

    • Ningyu Liu
    •  & Joseph R. Dwyer
  2. Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • Hans C. Stenbaek-Nielsen
  3. Department of Physics, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80840, USA

    • Matthew G. McHarg

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Contributions

N.Y.L. drafted the manuscript, supervised the project, developed the plasma discharge model, performed the simulations and compared with the observation. J.R.D. analysed the simulation results. H.C.S.-N. and M.G.M. conducted the high-speed imaging of sprites and derived the altitude range of the images. All authors contributed to the discussion of the results and the preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ningyu Liu.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-4 and Supplementary References

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