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Out of Thin Air

Lightning is one of the most enigmatic natural phenomena, and scientists still don't entirely understand it. But that's not stopping them from putting it to use.
March 1, 2018
Lightning flashes and rain falls in the valley between Los Alamos and the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Storm in the Rio Grande Valley, from Los Alamos New Mexico. CREDIT: Jim Stein

If scientists knew, in 1752, what they know now, Benjamin Franklin may never have ventured out into the storm.

Lightning happens when electrons flow momentarily between charged layers of clouds or between clouds and the ground. A lightning flash is accompanied by intense heat and all manner of electromagnetic emissions, which can be measured to help understand the phenomenon. Los Alamos scientists are studying lightning for a variety of purposes: as a natural proxy for atmospheric nuclear explosions, as a radar system for ionosphere perturbations, and as a monitor for volcanic eruption. Also under their scrutiny is the very cause of lightning itself, the source of the spark that sets the rest in motion.