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Gigantic jets between a thundercloud and the ionosphere


Transient luminous events in the atmosphere, such as lighting-induced sprites1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 and upwardly discharging blue jets9,10,11,12,13,14, were discovered recently in the region between thunderclouds and the ionosphere. In the conventional picture, the main components of Earth's global electric circuit15,16 include thunderstorms, the conducting ionosphere, the downward fair-weather currents and the conducting Earth. Thunderstorms serve as one of the generators that drive current upward from cloud tops to the ionosphere, where the electric potential is hundreds of kilovolts higher than Earth's surface. It has not been clear, however, whether all the important components of the global circuit have even been identified. Here we report observations of five gigantic jets that establish a direct link between a thundercloud (altitude 16 km) and the ionosphere at 90 km elevation. Extremely-low-frequency radio waves in four events were detected, while no cloud-to-ground lightning was observed to trigger these events. Our result indicates that the extremely-low-frequency waves were generated by negative cloud-to-ionosphere discharges, which would reduce the electrical potential between ionosphere and ground. Therefore, the conventional picture of the global electric circuit needs to be modified to include the contributions of gigantic jets and possibly sprites17,18.

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Figure 1: Infrared cloud map near Taiwan taken by the GMS 5 satellite at 14:31 ut, 22 July 2002.
Figure 2: Selected and cropped image fields of event 1.
Figure 3: Selected and cropped image fields of event 4.
Figure 4: The H-component of ELF waves associated with the jets shown in Figs 2 and 3.


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We thank R. Dowden for providing the TOGA data and for discussions. This work was supported in part by the National Space Program Office and National Science Council in Taiwan.

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Su, H., Hsu, R., Chen, A. et al. Gigantic jets between a thundercloud and the ionosphere. Nature 423, 974–976 (2003).

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