Evidence for solar wind modulation of lightning
To link to this article DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/9/5/055004
The response of lightning rates over Europe to arrival of high speed solar wind streams at Earth is investigated using a superposed epoch analysis. Fast solar wind stream arrival is determined from modulation of the solar wind V y component, measured by the Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft. Lightning rate changes around these event times are determined from the very low frequency arrival time difference (ATD) system of the UK Met Office. Arrival of high speed streams at Earth is found to be preceded by a decrease in total solar irradiance and an increase in sunspot number and Mg II emissions. These are consistent with the high speed stream's source being co-located with an active region appearing on the Eastern solar limb and rotating at the 27 d period of the Sun. Arrival of the high speed stream at Earth also coincides with a small (~1%) but rapid decrease in galactic cosmic ray flux, a moderate (~6%) increase in lower energy solar energetic protons (SEPs), and a substantial, statistically significant increase in lightning rates. These changes persist for around 40 d in all three quantities. The lightning rate increase is corroborated by an increase in the total number of thunder days observed by UK Met stations, again persisting for around 40 d after the arrival of a high speed solar wind stream. This result appears to contradict earlier studies that found an anti-correlation between sunspot number and thunder days over solar cycle timescales. The increase in lightning rates and thunder days that we observe coincides with an increased flux of SEPs which, while not being detected at ground level, nevertheless penetrate the atmosphere to tropospheric altitudes. This effect could be further amplified by an increase in mean lightning stroke intensity that brings more strokes above the detection threshold of the ATD system. In order to remove any potential seasonal bias the analysis was repeated for daily solar wind triggers occurring during the summer months (June to August). Though this reduced the number of solar wind triggers to 32, the response in both lightning and thunder day data remained statistically significant. This modulation of lightning by regular and predictable solar wind events may be beneficial to medium range forecasting of hazardous weather.