Monday, November 2, 2009

Gamma Rays from Lightning: By Jove!

"Lightning-Storm Gamma Rays Could Harm Air Travelers"
Wired Science (December 15, 2008)

"The most energetic particles in the electromagnetic spectrum could pose a danger to commercial airline passengers.

"About every 3000 hours of flying time, a plane is hit with a bolt of lightning. Recently, spacecraft have found gamma rays can be created by thunder storms, and according to new research presented at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting this week, the rays could be intense enough to cause radiation sickness.

" 'Everywhere we look, we're seeing x-rays and gamma rays flying out of thunderstorms and lightning,' said Joseph Dwyer, a physicist at the Florida Institute of Technology and lead author of the study. 'The gamma rays coming out of thunderstorms are so intense we can measure these 600 kilometers away and so bright that it almost blinds the spacecraft.'..."

I know: This sounds like the whiplash scam a few decades back, where being in a traffic accident, no matter how minor, could yield big profits - at least for the lawyer. (And I also know that some of those whiplash injuries were real. Which didn't keep ethically-challenged people from slapping on a neck brace and demanding big bucks.)

Like (real) whiplash injuries, though, this seems to be real. Astrophysicists had assumed that extremely powerful gamma rays were generated by large-scale events, like supernovae. Turns out that lightning can - and does - produce gamma rays: and, interestingly, that the smaller the source, the more intense the gamma rays.

I'm not getting too worried, though. Not just because I fly, on average, about once every 20 years or so. The sort of "Airline Flight Dies or Radiation Overdose" headlines haven't happened, in decades of stratospheric passenger runs - which hints that the 'perfect storm' situation for dangerous radiation levels is 'way below the one in 3,000 flying hours for lightning strikes.

This is important - and fascinating - research, but I don't think it's a reason to stop flying.


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