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Solar wind modulation of lightning

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  • Full or part time
    Dr C Scott
    Prof M Owens
    Dr C Watt
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Recent research by the Space & Atmospheric Electricity (SPATE) group at the university of Reading has demonstrated a clear modulation of lighting rates across Europe by the arrival of high-speed solar wind streams at Earth. Furthermore, the magnetic polarity of the solar wind has been shown to play a role. While the exact mechanism remains as yet unknown, evidence to date suggests that it could be through the modulation of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) by the heliospheric magnetic field and/or by energetic particles within the solar wind. On arrival at Earth, these energetic particles are further affected by the Earth’s magnetic field, which prevents all but the most energetic from being detected at the ground.

Lightning forms part of the Global Electric Circuit, with thunderstorms acting like a battery, transferring charge from the Earth’s surface to the lower ionosphere (the electrified part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere starting at altitudes around 60 km). Since the ionosphere is electrically conducting, this charge is spread globally from the local thunderstorm regions, where it then leaks back to earth as a small vertical current in fair weather regions around the globe. Thus the ionosphere and the Earth’s surface act as two plates of a spherical capacitor with thunderstorms charging the ionosphere to a potential of around 250 kV with respect to the surface and the weak conductivity of the atmosphere providing a pathway for this charge to leak back to the surface.

There is clearly much to be learned about the influence of the solar wind on the Earth’s upper and lower atmospheres. Since the upper atmosphere and ionosphere are dominated by variations in solar activity and solar wind, any mechanisms which link the upper and lower atmospheres provides a conduit by which solar activity can influence the lower atmosphere.

Having identified this new area for research, in this project, there is great scope for expanding the work to date to identify the mechanisms involved, determine the global extent of the effects and provide insight into the potential for improving lightning forecasts.

More details are available on the project description at
A video description is also available at

To apply, please refer to the SCENARIO website at

Funding Notes

The project is available for students with their own funding.


Evidence for solar wind modulation of lightning Scott, C. J.; Harrison, R. G.; Owens, M. J.; et al., Environmental Research Letters, 9, 5, 2014 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/9/5/055004
Lightning as a space-weather hazard: UK thunderstorm activity modulated by the passage of the heliospheric current sheet, Owens, M. J.; Scott, C. J.; Bennett, A. J.; et al., Geophysical Research Letters, 42, 22, 9624-9632, 2015. DOI: 10.1002/2015gl066802

How good is research at University of Reading in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 75.68

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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