Interferometric Observations of Lightning Initiation

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 10:35 AM
William Rison1, Paul R Krehbiel2, Michael Stock3, Harald E Edens2, Xuan-Min Shao4, Ronald J Thomas1 and Mark A Stanley2, (1)New Mexico Inst Mining & Tech, Socorro, NM, United States, (2)New Mexico Tech, Langmuir Laboratory, Socorro, NM, United States, (3)New Mexico Tech, Socorro, NM, United States, (4)Los Alamos Natl Lab, Los Alamos, NM, United States
Observations of the initial parts of lightning flashes close to Langmuir Laboratory in central New Mexico appear to show the lightning initiation process. The observations were made on August 5, 2013, from a number of flashes within 5 km of the New Mexico Tech broadband VHF interferometer (INTF). In addition to the INTF, the flashes were observed by the Langmuir Laboratory Lightning Mapping Array (LMA), and by close fast and slow antennas. For those flashes where the powers of the initial sources detected by the LMA were stronger than about 5 dBW (4 watts), the INTF observations showed that the initial LMA source was associated with a previously unidentified form of fast positive breakdown. No activity was detected prior to the positive breakdown, either by the sensitive INTF or fast electric measurements. The VHF radiation and electric field changes develop simultaneously, and the INTF shows a positive breakdown which propagates about one hundred meters. This and other features of the observations indicate that the breakdown occurs in virgin air and is produced by dielectric streamer processes in localized regions of strong electric fields. We observed both normal intracloud and cloud-to-ground discharges to be initiated by such breakdown. After the fast positive breakdown died out, the INTF showed continuous negative breakdown at the start of the positive channel, which subsequently developed into a negative leader propagating in the opposite direction of the initial positive breakdown. The results are fundamentally consistent with those obtained from modelling studies by Liu et al. (Phys. Rev. Lett.109, 025002, 2012), in which positive sprite streamers were shown to be initiated by purely dielectric breakdown, without the need of an initiating event such as a cosmic ray or energetic electron avalanches. We speculate that all lightning flashes are initiated by the fast positive events.