Lightning: A Natural Nuclear Reactor!

A thunderstorm in Annemasse, Haute-Savoie, France (click for full credit info)

In 1994, a scientific team using the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory reported seeing intense gamma ray flashes coming from the earth. The researchers called it an “unexplained terrestrial phenomenon,” but they noted:

The apparent correlation of the events with storm systems leads us to hypothesize that they are caused by electrical discharges to the stratosphere or ionosphere.

This generated interest among certain research groups, so ground-based observatories, airborne detectors, and other space-based observatories began looking for the same thing. It is now well-known that lightning is accompanied by the production of high-energy gamma rays.

While these gamma rays are of high enough energy to induce nuclear reactions, until now there has been no conclusive evidence that such reactions are actually occurring in connection with lightning storms. However, thanks in part to a Japanese academic crowdfunding site, we now have strong evidence that lightning does, indeed, produce nuclear reactions in the atmosphere!

The research team that gave us the evidence had begun a project where they were building and placing small gamma-ray detectors along Japan’s western coast, which is apparently ideal for observing strong thunderstorms. However, they ran out of funding, so they used the aforementioned academic crowdfunding site to raise money to continue their work. The extra funding made the difference, and just last month, the team published a paper in the journal Nature where they report their results.

They saw three bursts of gamma rays associated with lightning. The first lasted less than a thousandth of a second, and it was consistent with what other studies had already seen: high energy gamma rays coming from the lightning strike itself. However, they observed a second burst that lasted for several hundredths of a second. That gamma ray burst was characteristic of neutrons being absorbed by nitrogen atoms. The final burst lasted for tens of seconds (about a minute) and was characteristic of positrons (anti-matter versions electrons) colliding with electrons. When matter and antimatter collide like that, they annihilate one another and produce gamma rays of a specific energy.

Based on these data, the most likely explanation is that the initial gamma rays produced by the lightning strike knocked neutrons out of nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere. Those neutrons were then absorbed by other nitrogen atoms, which became neutron-rich and produced the second burst of gamma rays. The nitrogen atoms that had initially lost neutrons decayed by emitting a positron. That positron then collided with an electron, producing the third burst of gamma rays.

There are many interesting aspects to this study, but I want to focus on just one of them. If the scenario explained above is correct, then carbon-14 is also being produced by lightning. Based on what we already know about such reactions, only about 4% of the neutrons that were initially knocked out of the nitrogen atoms would be reabsorbed by other nitrogen atoms. The other 96% would knock a proton out of other nitrogen atoms, producing carbon-14. Thus, we can now state with some confidence that lightning strikes produce carbon-14!

Why is this interesting? Well, I have been told since I was a university student that radioactive dating systems are generally not affected by what happens on earth, since there just isn’t enough energy in terrestrial events to affect nuclear systems. Thus, the radioactive dating systems that we use to establish the age of fossils and rocks cannot be significantly affected by terrestrial events. We can now say with some confidence that this just isn’t true. Lightning strikes clearly produce enough energy to affect nuclear systems, and based on the data given in this study, it is affecting one that is used for radioactive dating (the carbon-14 system).

In addition, this isn’t the only such revelation that has recently come to light. Earlier this year an innovative scientist realized that a very simple physical process called diffusion can strongly influence certain radioactive dating systems. His model suggests that it could throw off ages given by the popular rubidium-strontium dating method by as much as 29 billion years! So just this year, we have learned about two processes that happen routinely on earth which affect different radioactive dating methods. I predict that over time, more will be discovered.

21 Comments

  1. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    So cool! So are the nuclear systems of rocks affected when they are directly struck by lightning? Or are systems of rocks also affected when they are near lightning strikes, within certain distances?

    Also, do you think these studies will have some effect on how we produce and use nuclear power?

    BOOM!!!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      If lightning strikes affect rocks on a nuclear level, it’s not by the mechanisms discussed in this paper. However, I don’t know of any research done on the matter, so there could be other mechanisms at play when lightning strikes rocks. I doubt that this will have an effect on nuclear power. Free neutrons are a critical part of how a nuclear power plant sustains the reaction that powers it, lightning would be too erratic to be a source for them.

      1. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

        I’m not sure I understand. If lightning strikes don’t affect rocks on a nuclear level by the mechanisms discussed in this paper, then how can the C14 produced by lightning strikes affect C14 dating methods?

        Or is it that we don’t yet know how the C14 produced by lightning strikes could affect C14 dating methods, just that lightning strikes produce C14?

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Carbon-14 dating methods for fossils are based on the carbon-14 in the atmosphere. The idea is that all living things are constantly exchanging carbon-14 with their environment. We eat food, and we release carbon-based waste. The carbon in the food was originally carbon dioxide absorbed by plants and turned into glucose via photosynthesis. Animals that eat the plants get their carbon from the glucose, and animals that eat animals get their carbon from an animal that got its carbon from a plant. In the end, then, the carbon that a living thing has in its body comes from the atmosphere.

          When the living thing dies, this carbon exchange ceases. The stable carbon sticks around, but the radioactive carbon (carbon-14) decays. So comparing the carbon-14 in a fossil to the carbon-14 content of the atmosphere can tell us how long the carbon-14 has been decaying, so we know how long since the fossil died. Thus, carbon-14 dating is based on the carbon-14 in the atmosphere.

          Carbon-14 dating is not used to date rocks, because their carbon-14 levels are not determined by the atmosphere, and therefore there is no reference point. It has been done on diamonds, just because all old-earthers agree that diamonds are so old that any carbon-14 that was initially in them must have decayed long ago, since for all practical purposes, carbon-14 lasts for only about 100,000 years. Nevertheless, diamonds do give dates with carbon-14 dating, indicating they are probably not as old as old-earthers think. How old cannot be determined, however, since once again, the carbon didn’t come from the atmosphere and therefore there is no reference point.

        2. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

          Ah, ok, thats makes more sense. Thank you for explaining (again) 🙂

  2. John D. says:

    Very cool, especially the C-14 details. I wonder if the miniature lightning produced by a Tesla coil produces C14.

    Supposedly he could make ball lightning that would linger for long periods of time in the lab. I’ve read they’ve only been able to make ball lightning in the lab as recently as a few years ago. (Although only for very short periods)

    http://www.businessinsider.com/mysterious-ball-lightning-made-in-lab-2013-8

    Still plenty of mysteries to be had !

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Tesla coils have been used to produce relativistic electrons (electrons moving at a speed significantly smaller than but still comparable to the speed of light), and that’s what it takes to make the gamma rays. The Tesla coils in my lab aren’t powerful enough to do this, but there are Tesla coils that can.

      1. John D. says:

        What! You never told me you had Tesla Coils!

        Do you have any demos?

        Thanks for the response, super interesting.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I don’t have any demos. Sorry!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Dr. Wile – the sixth paragraph which describes the three detected bursts of gamma rays has the sentence beginning “The final burst lasted for tens of seconds…” Is that wording correct? Just trying to make sense of it all. Thanks!

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Yes. That means it lasted on the order of 50 seconds or so. I will add a parenthetical.

  4. Chris Rohde says:

    Interesting. Some Flood models propose Noah’s Flood was also accompanied by hyper-volcanism. Volcanoes are associated with intense lightning activity. Could this be a possible mechanism for a rapid increase in 14C during that time which then affects radio-carbon dating?

    Just speculation at this stage.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      That’s certainly a possibility.

  5. Jake says:

    I wouldn’t have thought that there were still things like this that we didn’t know about lightning. I only skimmed through the Nature paper, but is there an obvious reason that you wouldn’t see this from a regular old giant spark in the lab? I mean, gamma rays are gamma rays, so I feel like seeing nuclear reactions in the lab would mean lightning would certainly produce them as well. The only reason I can think we wouldn’t see it is if the signal is too weak unless the spark is enormous, as is the case with lightning. (Though I’m not sure how one classifies how big a spark is, and I’m not at all familiar with the numbers.)

    1. Jay Wile says:

      It’s more related to the potential difference that caused the spark. The electrons are accelerated through the potential difference of a stormcloud, making them relativistic. As they collide with things, they emit bremsstrahlung radiation. If they are moving fast enough, that bremsstrahlung radiation is in the gamma ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I can make a spark with a few thousand volts, so long as the gap between the conductor is small. Those electrons will also emit bremsstrahlung radiation, but it won’t be energetic enough to be gamma radiation. Some stormclouds are supposed to have 100 Megavolts of potential difference, so the electrons start moving really fast! As a result, their bremsstrahlung radiation is very high in energy.

      1. Jake says:

        I think that’s part of what I was thinking in my head when I used the word enormous. Still, that just tells me you need to calculate how big a potential you need for the electron to accelerate quickly enough that its bremsstrahlung energy is high enough to cause the requisite nuclear reaction before it hits an air molecule. That doesn’t seem like it’d take more than a few lines of calculation, though it’d probably take me longer than it should since I’m horrible at E&M. The problem I see there is that, even if the electrons are energetic enough, they may not emit enough gamma rays for there to be a detectable number of nuclear interactions. (And figuring out the radiation signal strength and adjusting it to the detector sensitivity makes the calculation a little more difficult.) You mention above that some Tesla coils can produce relativistic electrons, and I imagine there exist labs that can do better, but perhaps it’s that even they don’t produce enough signal strength to detect nuclear reactions. If they did you could just see this in the lab. Though at that point it might be easier just to follow thunderstorms.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I think the biggest issue is the number of nuclear reactions. Gas molecules are far apart, so the chance of a gamma ray interacting with a nitrogen molecule is small.

      2. Jake says:

        As always, you post about interesting things. Thanks

  6. Kevin Lea says:

    Dear Dr. Wile,

    I added the following to your very important article before making copies for our church to read:

    Finally secular scientists have caught up with what Dr. Walt Brown has been explaining since 2,009 when he added a chapter on the Origin of Earth’s Radioactivity in his on-line book, In the Beginning – Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood.

    The Nature magazine article which originally broke this news includes the statement: “The discovery that thunderstorms can trigger nuclear reactions provides insight into the physics of atmospheric electricity and unveils a previously unknown natural source of radioactive isotopes on Earth.” Leonid Babich, “Thunderous Nuclear Reactions,” Nature, Vol. 551, 23 November 2017, p. 443.

    No, it was not previously unknown. In his Origin of Earth’s Radioactivity chapter, Dr. Brown explained years ago that electrical currents in a plasma state (including lighting) can and do create nuclear reactions (as multiple lab experiments have shown). There is evidence all over the earth suggesting that during the early days of Noah’s flood, extreme currents generated by the piezoelectric crystals in the crust produced super fusion and fission which created all the radioactive isotopes that are now found in earth’s crust.

    This known phenomenon also explains why Carbon 14 testing of soft tissue from Dinosaurs is returning dates of 20-40 thousand years, rather than the 5,000 years since they have been killed and buried in the flood. For reasons explained by Dr. Brown, before the flood there was a much lower equilibrium content of C14 in the environment than there is now. Therefore, when they died, their C14 content was already showing 15-25 thousand years of decay when compared to current equilibrium values. Please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2oRe-kxPog&t=2s at our youtube channel for an explanation of C14 dating in dinosaurs.

  7. Ken says:

    Far out! Knowing this, I can appreciate lightning even more! At a safe distance, of course. I hope I don’t get off-topic, but I have a question about nuclear reactors. Some people have stated that the fact we have nuclear power plants is some evidence the earth is billion of years old. I can’t really why he brought that up during our debate, but I’m guessing he’s going by how elements decay?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ken. Nuclear reactors depend on a specific isotope of uranium (U-235) or two isotopes of plutonium (Pu-239 and Pu-241). The uranium isotope, which is the main source of fuel, has a very long half-life (704 million years). By itself, that doesn’t tell us anything. However, “short-lived” radioisotopes (with half-lives less than 100 million years) do not exist naturally unless they have some replenishment mechanism, such as the cosmic ray reactions (and lightning) that replenish carbon-14, whose half-life is just over 5,000 years. Many point to that as evidence for an old earth, and perhaps that’s what your debate opponent meant. After all, we know that radioisotopes were produced in the initial formation of the earth, since long-lived radioisotopes exist naturally. If the earth is only thousands of years old, why aren’t there short-lived radioisotopes that don’t have replenishment mechanisms? Of course, this assumes half-lives are fixed, which isn’t clear at all. It also assumes we really understand radiation and the production of radioactive isotopes, which once again, isn’t clear at all.

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