A new paper, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, has quite the title. Obviously you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we’d argue this one warrants close attention: “A terrestrial gamma-ray flash inside the eyewall of Hurricane Patricia.”
In layman terms, this means that one of the windiest hurricanes on record produced a fair bit of lightning, and at least one of those flashes was energetic enough to produce a beam of antimatter, which shot down to Earth. If you don’t think that’s cool, then that’s fine, but you’d be wrong.
Back in 2015, when Hurricane Patricia was wreaking havoc on Mexico’s west coast, records were being set. The intensity of this cyclonic creation was unparalleled, and scientists wanted to get a closer look. Thankfully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have some specially designed planes that can fly into the hearts of hurricanes unharmed.
Sending one of their Hurricane Hunter planes into Patricia’s peak paroxysmal rage, they headed for the eyewall, a circumference of colossal thunderstorms, high winds and extreme weather. An instrument aboard the craft named ADELE, designed by engineers at the University of California Santa Cruz, picked up 184 counts of ionizing radiation in the blink of an eye – consistent with a lightning flash.
Based on the associated radio signal, and comparing the gamma-ray energy spectrum to simulations, the team concluded that ADELE – the Airborne Detector for Energetic Lightning Emissions – had happened upon a beam of positrons.
Positrons are the antimatter equivalents to electrons; they have the same mass, but an equal yet opposite charge. So what’s the alchemy behind this spectacular occurrence of lightning-generated antimatter?
The average lightning bolt involves the transfer of a billion or so joules of energy. As it happens, a 2017 study doubled-down on the notion that lightning of any sort, thanks to their high-energy nature, are natural particle accelerators.