Environmental Control of Cloud-to-Ground Lightning Polarity in Severe Storms

Carey, Lawrence D.; Buffalo, Kurt M.
April 2007
Monthly Weather Review;Apr2007, Vol. 135 Issue 4, p1327
Academic Journal
In this study, it is hypothesized that the mesoscale environment can indirectly control the cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning polarity of severe storms by directly affecting their structural, dynamical, and microphysical properties, which in turn directly control cloud electrification and ground flash polarity. A more specific hypothesis, which has been supported by past observational and laboratory charging studies, suggests that broad, strong updrafts and associated large liquid water contents in severe storms lead to the generation of an inverted charge structure and enhanced +CG lightning production. The corollary is that environmental conditions favoring these kinematic and microphysical characteristics should support severe storms generating an anomalously high (>25%) percentage of +CG lightning (i.e., positive storms) while environmental conditions relatively less favorable should sustain storms characterized by a typical (≤25%) percentage of +CG lightning (i.e., negative storms). Forty-eight inflow proximity soundings were analyzed to characterize the environment of nine distinct mesoscale regions of severe storms (4 positive and 5 negative) on 6 days during May–June 2002 over the central United States. This analysis clearly demonstrated significant and systematic differences in the mesoscale environments of positive and negative storms, which were consistent with the stated hypothesis. When compared to negative storms, positive storms occurred in environments associated with a drier low to midtroposphere, higher cloud-base height, smaller warm cloud depth, stronger conditional instability, larger 0–3 km AGL wind shear, stronger 0–2 km AGL storm relative wind speed, and larger buoyancy in the mixed-phase zone, at a statistically significant level. Differences in the warm cloud depth of positive and negative storms were by far the most dramatic, suggesting an important role for this parameter in controlling CG lightning polarity. In this study, strong correlations between the mesoscale environment and CG lightning polarity were demonstrated. However, causality could not be verified due to a lack of in situ observations to confirm the hypothesized microphysical, dynamical, and electrical responses to variations in environmental conditions that ultimately determined the dominant CG polarity. Future observational field programs and cloud modeling studies should focus on these critical intermediary processes.


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