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According to Physics – spotlighting exceptional research
(Cover Image)Quite a shock. Using a muon detector, researchers measured a record-breaking thunderstorm electric potential greater than 1 billion volts.A thunderstorm probed with atmospheric muons had an electric potential exceeding one billion volts, much higher than values measured previously.
Researchers have documented a thunderstorm producing an electric potential of about 1.3 billion volts (GV), 10 times greater than the largest value ever reported. The team’s new thunderstorm monitoring method makes use of the muons raining down on Earth, produced by cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere. A thundercloud’s potential can reduce the energies of the charged particles and decrease the likelihood that they will be detected beneath the storm. The new measurement indicates that thunderstorms with several-billion-volt potentials are possible, voltages high enough to explain the mysterious flashes of high-energy gamma rays sometimes observed during thunderstorms.
Since Benjamin Franklin flew a kite on a stormy afternoon in 1752, we have known that thunderstorms include electrical phenomena—lightning and thunder are the manifestations of sudden discharges between charged regions of the atmosphere. To study the electrical structure of thunderclouds, researchers send airplanes or balloons into the centers of thunderstorms. These tests have found electric potentials exceeding tens of millions of volts, with the largest value, 130 megavolts, seen during a mountain storm in New Mexico in the 1990s . Aircraft and balloons, however, can only probe the small region of the storm through which they fly and cannot measure the potential across the entire cloud.
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