Runaway breakdown and electric discharges in thunderstorms
Lebedev Physical Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Leninsky prosp. 53, Moscow, 119991, Russian Federation
This review concerns the theory of the avalanche multiplication of high-energy (0.1-10 MeV) electrons in a neutral material, a newly discovered phenomenon known as runaway breakdown (RB). In atmospheric conditions RB takes place at electric fields an order of magnitude weaker than those needed for normal breakdown in air. Experimental work of the past few years has shown that RB determines the maximum electric field strength in thunderclouds and is behind a variety of phenomena newly observed in thunderstorm atmosphere, such as giant high-altitude discharges between thunderclouds and the ionosphere, anomalous amplifications of X-ray emission, intense bursts of gamma radiation, etc. These phenomena are becoming increasingly active areas of study. A necessary condition for the occurrence of runaway avalanche is the presence of high energy seed electrons. In the atmosphere, these are cosmic ray secondary electrons. Therefore, the observed effects reflect the close relationship between cosmic rays and electrodynamic processes in the thunderstorm atmosphere. The first laboratory results on RB are also presented. Further
studies in this area may be of interest for high-current electronics.