October 28th, 2011 • 10:57 AM
The Crab Nebula and Lightning

by Peter Martinson

Today, nobody knows how lightning is formed. The “widely believed” dogma is that thermal motions of water condensates inside clouds drive the formation of a voltage difference between the cloud tops and bottoms. Unfortunately, the measurements of electric field within thunderclouds, even the most violently electric, fall far short of that needed to produce a stroke of true lightning.

There’s a theory that has been kicking around since the mid-1990s, developed by a Russian scientist named Alex Gurevich, that another process exists to rapidly build up such a voltage difference in small volumes within the cloud, thus releasing a tremendous blast of plasma. When cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, they tend to produce a cascade of secondary particles, the which are detectable by ground-based cosmic ray observatories. If the cosmic ray is energetic enough, then not only will it be moving faster than the speed of light in our atmosphere, but so will a ton of those secondary particles, some of which are electrons. The cascade of specifically electrons, called by Gurevich “runaway breakdown,” becomes the column of voltage that can then pump a blast of lightning between cloud and ground.

Now, there are two things I want to point out about this theory, which itself has several secondary phenomena that are implied, and now being measured. First, the formation of at least half of all low-level rainclouds is dependent on cosmic rays. This was first posited by Henrik Svensmark in the 1990s, and experiments at the CERN-CLOUD facility have demonstrated the ability of cosmic ray secondaries to produce water condensation in atmosphere. So, we should assume that thunderclouds are heavily associated with cosmic rays. Second, if Gurevich’s theory is true, then there should be a cyclic period of increase and decrease in lightning occurence that follows the regular decadal solar cycle. This has not yet been established.

Another implication of this, which hasn’t been explored to my knowledge, is that the Crab Nebula may be involved with lightning production - and this process would NOT be modulated by the Sun. Recently, scientists working with the VERITAS gamma ray observatory in Arizona have established that each pulse and associated interpulse from the Crab Nebula’s pulsar includes a pulse of extremely high energy gamma radiation. Each pulse emits gamma rays greater than 120 GeV, and each interpulse emits gamma rays at even higher energies.

The way VERITAS detects gamma rays is very similar to how cosmic rays are detected. When a gamma ray runs into our atmosphere, sometimes it transforms into a positron-electron pair, both of which hurtle away from each other at speeds near the speed of light. In the atmosphere, the speed of light is slower than in space, so the pair find themselves moving faster than the local speed of light! This pair generates a cascade of secondaries which appears to be very similar to the secondary cascade of cosmic rays. Both cascades produce a special phenomenon called Cherenkov radiation, which is a very faint light in the near ultraviolet, which the VERITAS array is designed to detect.

Since both cosmic rays and gamma rays produce Cherenkov radiation, the VERITAS equipment must be able to subtract out that from the cosmic rays. It turns out that the Cherenkov signature of gamma rays is shaped differently than that of the cosmic rays. Cosmic ray Cherenkov patterns are generally pretty diffuse and circular, while gamma ray Cherenkov patterns are typically very narrow, and elliptical, indicating the direction the gamma ray came from. See the figures below, produced by NASA.

Secondary cascades produced by gamma rays (left) tend to be narrower in focus than those produced by cosmic rays (right)

Now, if both cosmic rays and gamma rays produce secondary cascades, what’s to say that gamma rays can’t generate Gurevich’s runaway breakdown, and thus cause lightning? An interesting implication of this, which I will end with, is that the Crab Nebula produces other gamma ray events, other than the regular 60 pulses per second. Back in April 2011, the nebula’s gamma emission suddenly spiked to 30 times normal, and then returned to normal, all over a ten day period. Was there an increase in lightning and thunderstorm activity on Earth? Well, some may remember that April was one of the most damaging storm months in American history. As the flare was occuring, the tornado outbreaks began in the US. Normally, the height of tornado season is in May, but this time, it came early. Was this because of the Crab Nebula's gamma flare? Maybe and maybe not, although now the possibility must be seriously considered!

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