Science Diary: Lighting- Waiting

Music
Ambi: Thunderstorm

“I’m on top of South Baldy at Langmuir Lab looking at a beautiful blue sky. Which is too bad, because I’m hoping for storms today.”

Welcome to Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries, a glimpse of the world of science from the inside. We’re with Richard Sonnenfeld, an atmospheric physicist at New Mexico Tech. He’s trying to learn more about lightning. But, to study lightning, you need storms.

“I’m hopeful that the fact that the sky is cloudless now will get the land to heat up quite well, and so maybe by afternoon we’ll have some strong convection.”

Richard Sonnenfeld and his team send instruments, carried by weather balloons, into thunderstorms. They’re hoping to learn more about what happens during a lightning flash something scientists know surprisingly little about.

“And to understand the discharge process, we want to know where the charges go when the lightning strike actually happens. So what we do is we measure the electric field. The electric field is created by charges, and when charges move, then the electric field changes with them. You can think of the electric field as the force that an electron would exert on another electron at a distance. It’s how we can detect electrons at a distance. What we’ve done is we’ve built a new instrument that measures electric field. And we fly this instrument into storms. Physics-wise, what we want to understand is as the lightning stroke occurs, where does the charge go? For example, the tip of a lightning stroke — is all the charge there? Or, as the lightning progresses, does it leave charge behind? We figure that it probably does leave some charge behind and there’re some simple models that explain why lightning ought to leave charge behind. But we’d like to measure exactly what it does. And then, the models can be improved and we can understand more about how lightning propagates.”

If you have a question for Richard Sonnenfeld, check out his blog on pulseplanet.com. Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries are made possible by the National Science Foundation.

Science Diary: Lighting- Waiting

In order to study lightning, you need storms!
Air Date:09/03/2007
Scientist:
Transcript:

Music
Ambi: Thunderstorm

“I'm on top of South Baldy at Langmuir Lab looking at a beautiful blue sky. Which is too bad, because I'm hoping for storms today.”

Welcome to Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries, a glimpse of the world of science from the inside. We’re with Richard Sonnenfeld, an atmospheric physicist at New Mexico Tech. He’s trying to learn more about lightning. But, to study lightning, you need storms.

“I'm hopeful that the fact that the sky is cloudless now will get the land to heat up quite well, and so maybe by afternoon we'll have some strong convection.”

Richard Sonnenfeld and his team send instruments, carried by weather balloons, into thunderstorms. They’re hoping to learn more about what happens during a lightning flash something scientists know surprisingly little about.

“And to understand the discharge process, we want to know where the charges go when the lightning strike actually happens. So what we do is we measure the electric field. The electric field is created by charges, and when charges move, then the electric field changes with them. You can think of the electric field as the force that an electron would exert on another electron at a distance. It's how we can detect electrons at a distance. What we've done is we've built a new instrument that measures electric field. And we fly this instrument into storms. Physics-wise, what we want to understand is as the lightning stroke occurs, where does the charge go? For example, the tip of a lightning stroke -- is all the charge there? Or, as the lightning progresses, does it leave charge behind? We figure that it probably does leave some charge behind and there're some simple models that explain why lightning ought to leave charge behind. But we'd like to measure exactly what it does. And then, the models can be improved and we can understand more about how lightning propagates.”

If you have a question for Richard Sonnenfeld, check out his blog on pulseplanet.com. Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries are made possible by the National Science Foundation.