Project investigates lightning's impact on climate change

09/22/04

A three-year, $300,000 research project at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology will help scientists better understand the impact of lightning on global climate change.

The study, funded by NASA, will examine the nitric oxide produced by lightning. Nitric oxide is a greenhouse gas that produces or destroys ozone in the lower atmosphere, depending on the amount of nitric oxide present. Lightning-produced nitric oxide is the least well understood source of the gas in the atmosphere.

The simulations produced at South Dakota Tech should help decrease the uncertainty associated with lightning-produced nitric oxide. Dr. John Helsdon, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and Richard Farley, a research scientist in the department, are conducting the research. The project runs through March 2007.

"Since global climate change and ozone budgets are a worldwide problem, our research will help in obtaining more accurate predictions of climate change and ozone concentrations on a global basis," Helsdon said. "As a result, decision making that depends on accurate global climate estimates and ozone budgets will be positively affected by the research."

Helsdon and Farley are using Tech's three-dimensional Storm Electrification Model to investigate nitric oxide production. The lightning scheme in the models is based on physical principles, and accounts for the production of nitric oxide through the calculation of the energy dissipated by lightning flashes. The model calculates the amount of nitric oxide produced along each lightning channel and distributes it according to the channel geometry and the storm wind flow. The Storm Electrification Model also explores the ultimate influence of lightning on atmospheric ozone.

"Ours is the only model in the world that explicitly treats the production of nitric oxide by lightning because we have a lightning scheme in the Storm Electrification Model that develops actual lightning channel paths," Helsdon said. "Since the production of nitric oxide depends on the energy change due to lightning, we can calculate the production rate along the channel and place nitric oxide in realistic quantities and locations within the modeled thunderstorm.

"If global and regional climate change estimates can be improved because of our research, then local, regional, and national economic decision making processes will be impacted and improved."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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