Observations of fast VHF-bright positive breakdown

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 11:05 AM
Michael Stock1, Paul R Krehbiel1, William Rison2, Jeff L Lapierre1 and Harald E Edens1, (1)New Mexico Tech, Socorro, NM, United States, (2)New Mexico Inst Mining & Tech, Socorro, NM, United States
Positive breakdown during lightning discharges is generally considered to be weak and slowly propagating, as high speed video observations show it to be optically weak, and studies of the development of cloud-to-ground (CG) and intracloud (IC) flashes show development in the negative charge region to be slow. With the proper instrumentation, however, fast positive breakdown is a relatively common feature of both CG and IC flashes. The breakdown is bright at VHF, but is smoothly continuous so that time-of-arrival VHF mapping systems such as the Lightning Mapping Array are usually unable to detect or locate its occurrence. However, the breakdown is easily locatable using interferometric mapping techniques. Such an interferometer was developed at NM Tech in the 1980s and used in the CaPE studies at Kennedy Space Center in 1991, where it observed fast (1-6 × 10m/s), VHF-bright positive leaders propagating away from the source region of negative CG return strokes (Shao et al., 1995).

Here we report new observations of fast positive breakdown, obtained with Langmuir Laboratory's flash-continuous broadband VHF interferometer, that confirm and substantially expand our understanding of the phenomena. Numerous examples have been observed following return strokes of negative CG flashes, including bolt-from-blue discharges, and during K-processes of both IC and CG flashes. The breakdown typically propagates a few kilometers at speeds on the order of 107 m/s and frequently produces some of the brightest radiation of the flash. A particularly interesting feature of the breakdown is that it propagates into regions of previously un-ionized air. Then following the breakdown, frequently no further VHF emission is seen along or beyond its channel, indicating that the channel formed is not conducting. But on occasion, especially during cloud-to-ground flashes, the end of the fast positive breakdown turns into a normal, slowly propagating positive leader.