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After nearly 100 years of speculating that thunderstorms could trigger a nuclear reaction in the atmosphere, scientists have finally recorded the phenomenon for the first time.
Lightning produces flashes of electromagnetic radiation called gamma rays. Researchers have long theorized that gamma rays, upon interacting with molecules in the air, can generate radioactive isotopes—elements with nuclei that aren't stable. That instability means they can randomly let off bursts of excess radiation including gamma rays, and result in a nuclear reaction
There have been reports of lightning-induced nuclear reactions before, going back to 1985, but none of them sufficiently reliable. Scientists had been able to create computer simulations of the phenomenon, but that was about it. On February 6, 2017, a team in Japan observed a “clear signature of positron annihilation associated with γ-ray flashes.” A paper describing the observations was published Thursday in the journal Nature.
“The photonuclear reaction in the atmosphere has been theoretically expected [to be] triggered by such high energy radiation," lead author Teruaki Enoto, an astrophysicist from Kyoto University in Japan, told ScienceAlert.
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