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Annales Geophysicae An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 30, issue 8
Ann. Geophys., 30, 1185-1212, 2012
© Author(s) 2012. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Ann. Geophys., 30, 1185-1212, 2012
© Author(s) 2012. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Review paper 17 Aug 2012

Review paper | 17 Aug 2012

Underlying mechanisms of transient luminous events: a review

V. V. Surkov1 and M. Hayakawa2 V. V. Surkov and M. Hayakawa
  • 1Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), Research Nuclear University of the Russian Federation, Moscow, Russia
  • 2Advanced Wireless Communications Research Center, The University of Electro-Communications, Chofu Tokyo, Japan

Abstract. Transient luminous events (TLEs) occasionally observed above a strong thunderstorm system have been the subject of a great deal of research during recent years. The main goal of this review is to introduce readers to recent theories of electrodynamics processes associated with TLEs. We examine the simplest versions of these theories in order to make their physics as transparent as possible. The study is begun with the conventional mechanism for air breakdown at stratospheric and mesospheric altitudes. An electron impact ionization and dissociative attachment to neutrals are discussed. A streamer size and mobility of electrons as a function of altitude in the atmosphere are estimated on the basis of similarity law. An alternative mechanism of air breakdown, runaway electron mechanism, is discussed. In this section we focus on a runaway breakdown field, characteristic length to increase avalanche of runaway electrons and on the role played by fast seed electrons in generation of the runaway breakdown. An effect of thunderclouds charge distribution on initiation of blue jets and gigantic jets is examined. A model in which the blue jet is treated as upward-propagating positive leader with a streamer zone/corona on the top is discussed. Sprite models based on streamer-like mechanism of air breakdown in the presence of atmospheric conductivity are reviewed. To analyze conditions for sprite generation, thunderstorm electric field arising just after positive cloud-to-ground stroke is compared with the thresholds for propagation of positively/negatively charged streamers and with runway breakdown. Our own estimate of tendril's length at the bottom of sprite is obtained to demonstrate that the runaway breakdown can trigger the streamer formation. In conclusion we discuss physical mechanisms of VLF (very low frequency) and ELF (extremely low frequency) phenomena associated with sprites.

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