May 26, 2018 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Observe First Known Antimatter Lightning During Hurricane

The Earth is a mysterious place. We might think we have a handle on all of the natural phenomena which occur around us, but the truth is we likely have no idea just how strange our planet is. Case in point: scientists this week announced the first ever known instance of a beam of antimatter blasting downward like a lightning strike in the middle of a powerful hurricane. What kinds of havoc could such a beam wreak on any unfortunate souls below?

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I'd rather not find out the hard way.

Luckily for us, the beam appears to have not made it past the lower atmosphere. The beam was detected by a team of NOAA researchers who flew a specially-equipped “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft directly through the eyewall of the cyclone during its peak intensity, giving a rare glimpse into the phenomena which accompany which storms. Scientists have known that terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, powerful beams of anti-electrons, sometimes occur in the atmosphere. However, this recent sighting is the first time such a beam has been observed travelling downward - or even directly observed at all.

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Scientists are only in the last few decades beginning to identify and study all manners of strange atmospheric phenomena like the red sprites pictured here.

David Smith, a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the researchers involved in the published study of the beam, says despite the direct observation, the event ultimately remains an anomaly:

What we saw in the aircraft are the gamma-rays produced by the downward positron beam. It's an extraordinary event, and we still don't understand how it gets so bright. This is the first confirmation of that theoretical prediction, and it shows that TGFs are piercing the atmosphere from top to bottom with high-energy radiation.

According to a UC Santa Cruz press release, the beam was observed “amid the extreme violence” of Hurricane Patricia, the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere and the second-most intense cyclone worldwide. The storm pounded the west coast of Mexico in late 2015, causing 13 fatalities and an estimated $460 million USD worth of damage throughout Central America, Mexico, and Texas.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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