Evidence for synchronicity of lightning activity in networks of spatially remote thunderstorms

Yoav Yair, Reuven Aviv, Gilad Ravid, Roy Yaniv, Baruch Ziv, Colin Price

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Visual observations by space shuttle astronauts have described a phenomenon in which spatially distant thunderstorm cells seem to reciprocally "ignite" lightning flashes in a semi-cyclic sequence. Lightning occurring in one cell is immediately followed by lightning in other cells, separated by tens or hundreds of kilometers. We present quantitative analysis of lightning observations conducted within the framework of the MEIDEX-sprite campaign on board the space shuttle Columbia in January 2003 [Yair, Y., Israelevich, P., Devir, A., Moalem, M., Price, C., Joseph, J., Levin, Z., Ziv, B., Teller, A., 2004. New sprites observations from the space shuttle. Journal of Geophysical Research 109, D15201/10.1029/2003JD004497]. Video footage of 6 storm systems with varying flash rates, which occurred over Africa, South America, Australia and the Pacific Ocean were analyzed. It is found that when the storm flash rate was high, lightning activity in horizontally remote electrically active cells became clustered, with bursts of nearly simultaneous activity separated by quiet periods. The recurrence time was ∼2.5 s, close to the previously reported time delay between consecutive ELF transient signals in the Schumann resonance range [Füllekrug, M., 1995. Schumann resonances in magnetic filed components. Journal of Atmospheric and Terresterial Physics 57, 479-484]. We propose that this behavior is similar to the collective dynamics of a network of weakly coupled limit-cycle oscillators [Strogatz, S.H., 2000, From Kuramoto to Crawford: exploring the onset of synchronization in populations of coupled oscillators. Physica, D, 1-20]. Thunderstorm cells embedded within a mesoscale convective system (MCS) constitute such a network, and their lightning frequency is best described in terms of phase-locking of a globally coupled array [Kourtchatov, S.Y., Yu, V.V., Likhanskii, V.V., Napartovitch, A.P., Arecchi, F.T., Lapucci, A., 1995 Theory of phase locking of globally coupled laser arrays. Phys. Rev. A 52, 4089-4094]. Comparison of basic parameters of the lightning networks with predictions of random-graph models reveals that the networks cannot be described by the classical random-graph model [Erdos, P., Renyi, A., 1960. On the evolution of random graphs. Publ. Math. Inst. Hung. Acad. Sci., 5, 17-61], but are more compatible with generalized random-graphs with a prescribed degree distribution [Newman, M.E.J., Strogatz, S.H., Watts, D.J., 2001. Random graphs with arbitrary degree distributions and their applications. Phys. Rev. E 64, 026118] that exhibit a high clustering coefficient and small average path lengths. Such networks are capable of supporting fast response, synchronization and coherent oscillations [Lago-Fernandez, L.F., Huerta, R., Corbacho, F., Siguenza, J.A., 2000. Fast response and temporal coherent oscillations in small-world networks. Physical Review Letters 84, 2758-2761]. Several physical mechanisms are suggested to explain the observed phenomenon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1401-1415
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics
Issue number12
StatePublished - Aug 2006


  • Breakdown process
  • Mesoscale lightning
  • Random networks
  • Space shuttle


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