Numerical modeling of leader discharge mechanisms in lightning, blue jets, gigantic jets, and sprites

Open Access
Da Silva, Caitano Luiz
Graduate Program:
Electrical Engineering
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 06, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Victor P Pasko, Dissertation Advisor
  • Julio Urbina, Committee Member
  • Iam Choon Khoo, Committee Member
  • Deborah A Levin, Committee Chair
  • Lightning
  • Gigantic Jets
  • Blue Jets
  • Streamers
  • Leaders
  • Initial Breakdown Pulses
  • Narrow Bipolar Events
The work presented in this dissertation is dedicated to the investigation of leader discharge mechanisms in lightning and transient luminous events. We introduce two new numerical models of the leader process that capture its onset and propagation, as briefly described below. The first theoretical model simulates air heating and streamer-to-leader transition in gas discharges. The model accounts for all physical processes known to play a role in the conversion of a streamer corona to a leader channel. Detailed discussion on the role of electron detachment in the development of the thermal-ionizational instability that triggers the spark development in short air gaps is presented. The dynamics of fast heating by quenching of excited electronic states is discussed and the scaling of its main channels with ambient air density is quantified. The developed model is employed to study the streamer-to-leader transition process and to obtain its scaling with ambient air density. The introduced methodology for estimation of leader speeds is based on the assumption that the propagation of a leader is limited by the air heating of every newly-formed leader section. It is demonstrated that the streamer-to-leader transition time has an inverse-squared dependence on the ambient air density at near-ground pressures, in agreement with similarity laws for Joule heating in a streamer channel. Model results indicate that a deviation from this similarity scaling occurs at very-low air densities, where the rate of electronic power deposition is balanced by the channel expansion, and air heating from quenching of excited electronic states is very inefficient. These findings place a limit on the maximum altitude at which a hot and highly-conducting lightning leader channel can be formed in the Earth's atmosphere. This result is important for understating of the gigantic jet discharges between thundercloud tops and the lower ionosphere. Our simulations of leader propagation at stratospheric altitudes demonstrate that initial speeds of gigantic jets are consistent with the leader propagation mechanism, and that the observed acceleration in gigantic jets can be attributed to the expansion of its streamer zone in a medium of exponentially-decreasing air density. This process defines the existence of an altitude at which the streamer zone becomes so long that it dynamically extends all the way to the ionosphere. We extend the air heating model to simulate the effects of strong currents flowing in sprites in the mesosphere. We show that fast air heating (due to quenching of excited electronic states) in sprite cores can produce >0.01 Pa pressure perturbations on the ground, observed in association with sprites. The second theoretical model simulates the electromagnetic radiation generated during the initial breakdown stage of lightning discharges. We use this model to describe in detail how the leader discharge dynamics generates the so-called initial breakdown pulses (IBPs) and narrow bipolar events (NBEs) observed with multi-station electric field change sensors on the ground. IBPs have been correlated with individual bursts of light that appear to be illuminations of a lightning leader channel; as a flash evolves the location of IBP sources inside the cloud coincides with the position of negative leaders as determined by a VHF lightning mapping system. NBEs are electric field signatures with broadband waveforms resembling classic IBPs in both amplitude and duration. Nonetheless, NBEs are quite peculiar in the sense that very infrequently they are followed by conventional lightning processes. Only a small fraction of positive-polarity NBEs happen as the first event in an otherwise regular intracloud lightning discharge. Typically, the initiator-type of NBEs has no difference with other NBEs that did not start lightning, except for the fact that they occur deeper inside the thunderstorm (i.e., at lower altitudes). In this dissertation we propose that IBPs and NBEs are the electromagnetic transients associated with the sudden (i.e., stepwise) elongation of the initial negative leader extremity in the thunderstorm electric field. To demonstrate our hypothesis we use a novel model of the leader electrodynamics. It consists of a generalization of electrostatic and transmission-line approximations existing in the refereed literature. We demonstrate how the IBP and NBE waveform characteristics directly reflect the properties of the bidirectional lightning leader (such as step length, for example) and amplitude of the thunderstorm electric field.