NASA

Scientists say the star's magnetic field may be ratcheting up strikes by 50 percent.

When one is caught in a major thunderstorm, with lightning bolts cracking left and right, what's on the brain is probably not, Damn you, sun! But perhaps we should blame our life-giving star for making storms extra-intense, say researchers who claim it's creating spikes in British lightning.

The sun is not only a gigantic ball of nuclear fire but an immense tangle of magnetic lines snaking into space, constantly changing in orientation and intensity. And that's where the connection to lightning begins, finds Matt Owens and other University of Reading scientists in Environmental Research Letters.

When the solar magnetic field bends one way, the earth's own field warps in another direction. That allows particles whipping through the universe called cosmic rays to more easily penetrate our atmosphere. Cosmic rays are known to play a role in sparking lightning during storms, thus the theory that there are fiercer electric fusillades when the solar field is "holding open" our planet's magnetic curtain.

An artistic rendering of the sun's heliospheric current sheet swishing through the solar system. (NASA)

After sorting through weather data, Owens and company calculated that the sun's field, when bent in a certain direction, increased thunderstorms by an astonishing 50 percent in the U.K. It has an effect outside the U.K., too, probably leading to dips in lightning activity elsewhere. "[W]e propose a redistribution of lightning, rather than a global change in the lightning rate," say the researchers.

So why should anybody care? If scientists know how the solar field is moving, it could help create better forecasts of major thunderstorms weeks before they happen. Says Owens:

"Scientists have been reliably predicting the solar magnetic field polarity since the 1970s by watching the surface of the Sun. We just never knew it had any implications on the weather on Earth. We now plan to combine regular weather forecasts, which predict when and where thunderclouds will form, with solar magnetic field predictions. This means a reliable lightning forecast could now be a genuine possibility."

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a closed street in St. Louis
    Equity

    The Curious Tale of the St. Louis Street Barriers

    Thanks to an '80s mania for traffic calming, the St. Louis grid is broken by hundreds of bollards and cul-de-sacs. Critics say it’s time to get rid of them.

  2. A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.
    Life

    How Mandatory Vaccination Fueled the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

    To better understand the controversy over New York’s measles outbreak, you have to go back to the late 19th century.

  3. Design

    The Woman Who Elevated Modern Poland’s Architecture

    A new exhibit displays Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak’s talent, which strove beyond the postwar standards of mass-production and prefabrication in her home country.

  4. Transportation

    Will Ottawa Ever Get Its Light Rail?

    Sinkholes, winter-weary trains, and political upheaval have held the Confederation Line light-rail transit back from a seriously overdue opening.

  5. A women-only subway car in Mexico City, Mexico
    Equity

    What’s the Best Way to Curb NYC Subway Harassment?

    While other countries have turned to women-only cars, New York legislators are proposing to ban repeat sex offenders and increase penalties for subway grinders.