Monte Carlo model for analysis of thermal runaway electrons in streamer tips in transient luminous events and streamer zones of lightning leaders

Gregory D. Moss, Victor P. Pasko, Ningyu Liu, Georgioş Veronis

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    252 Scopus citations


    Streamers are thin filamentary plasmas that can initiate spark discharges in relatively short (several centimeters) gaps at near ground pressures and are also known to act as the building blocks of streamer zones of lightning leaders. These streamers at ground pressure, after 1/N scaling with atmospheric air density N, appear to be fully analogous to those documented using telescopic imagers in transient luminous events (TLEs) termed sprites, which occur in the altitude range 40-90 km in the Earth's atmosphere above thunderstorms. It is also believed that the filamentary plasma structures observed in some other types of TLEs, which emanate from the tops of thunderclouds and are termed blue jets and gigantic jets, are directly linked to the processes in streamer zones of lightning leaders. Acceleration, expansion, and branching of streamers are commonly observed for a wide range of applied electric fields. Recent analysis of photoionization effects on the propagation of streamers indicates that very high electric field magnitudes ∼10 Ek, where Ek is the conventional breakdown threshold field defined by the equality of the ionization and dissociative attachment coefficients in air, are generated around the tips of streamers at the stage immediately preceding their branching. This paper describes the formulation of a Monte Carlo model, which is capable of describing electron dynamics in air, including the thermal runaway phenomena, under the influence of an external electric field of an arbitrary strength. Monte Carlo modeling results indicate that the ∼10 Ek fields are able to accelerate a fraction of low-energy (several eV) streamer tip electrons to energies of ∼2-8 keV. With total potential differences on the order of tens of MV available in streamer zones of lightning leaders, it is proposed that during a highly transient negative corona flash stage of the development of negative stepped leader, electrons with energies 2-8 keV ejected from streamer tips near the leader head can be further accelerated to energies of hundreds of keV and possibly to several tens of MeV, depending on the particular magnitude of the leader head potential. It is proposed that these energetic electrons may be responsible (through the "bremsstrahlung" process) for the generation of hard X rays observed from ground and satellites preceding lightning discharges or with no association with lightning discharges in cases when the leader process does not culminate in a return stroke. For a lightning leader carrying a current of 100 A, an initial flux of ∼2-8 keV thermal runaway electrons integrated over the cross-sectional area of the leader is estimated to be ∼1018 s-1, with the number of electrons accelerated to relativistic energies depending on the particular field magnitude and configuration in the leader streamer zone during the negative corona flash stage of the leader development. These thermal runaway electrons could provide an alternate source of relativistic seed electrons which were previously thought to require galactic cosmic rays. The duration of the negative corona flash and associated energetic radiation is estimated to be in the range from ∼1 μs to ∼1 ms depending mostly .on the pressure-dependent size of the leader streamer zone.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article numberA02307
    JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Feb 1 2006

    All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

    • Geophysics
    • Space and Planetary Science


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