There is no more iconic storm image than the brilliant white forks of lightning snaking their way across a menacing sky. But most of it happens too fast for the human eye to glimpse, so researchers use high-speed cameras to spy how the lightning races between sky and Earth.
When lightning first develops, it generally sends a bolt called a step leader down toward the ground, branching in seemingly random directions. When the bolt gets close to the ground, it creates an intense electric field, which causes upward streamers that meet it midair. After the streamers attach to the main bolt, the lightning charges down again in a dart leader, which is the bright part observers on the ground actually see.
But for lightning researchers, it's not always practical to wait around for lightning to develop. Some scientists fire rockets into the clouds to trigger lightning — the modern-day version of Ben Franklin's experiment.
"There are only two places in the United States that do that," said atmospheric scientist Ken Eack of New Mexico Tech, in Socorro — "here and the University of Florida."
The rockets, which trail thin wires connected to the ground, create upward streamers that penetrate a negatively charged layer in the clouds, triggering a downward flash. Eack and his colleagues use lightning mapping arrays to study where the lightning channels go and where the electric charges are inside clouds. The fruits of their efforts could have practical value in protecting against lightning strikes too, Eack said.
Some people have proposed triggering lightning with lasers or water jets, as a way of diffusing the risk of a natural strike. But Eack doesn't think these methods would be effective. You can try to get lightning to strike in a specific spot, but in the end, "nothing attracts lightning," Eack said.
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