Do Thunderstorms Pose A Radiation Risk To Air Travelers?

Scientists are getting closer to understanding how "dark lightning" produces bursts of gamma rays that may come in contact with a plane's passengers and crew.

What's the Latest Development?


On Wednesday scientists from the Florida Institute of Technology unveiled a physics-based model that they say will help determine how thunderstorms produce bursts of gamma rays known as "dark lightning" and how such bursts might affect air travelers flying near or through a storm. Using this model, they were able to determine that people flying in the middle of certain storms could unknowingly receive an amount of radiation "roughly equal to a full-body CT scan" in a matter of minutes. The team presented their research at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna.

What's the Big Idea?

Unlike regular lightning, dark lightning doesn't produce much visible light, and yet the energy it produces can "blind" instruments in outer space. Plus, it often originates at the same altitudes populated by commercial aircraft, which is why scientists have been searching for ways to explain the phenomenon. It's still not known exactly how often aircraft experience these bursts, if ever. Team member Joseph Dwyer says, "Although airline pilots already do their best to avoid thunderstorms, occasionally aircraft do end up inside electrified storms" which would theoretically expose passengers to radiation.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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