Luminosity of initial breakdown in lightning Academic Article uri icon


  • Time correlated high-speed video and electromagnetic data for 15 cloud-to-ground and intracloud lightning flashes reveal bursts of light, bright enough to be seen through intervening cloud, during the initial breakdown (IB) stage and within the first 3 ms after flash initiation. Each sudden increase in luminosity is coincident with a CG type (12 cases) or an IC type (3 cases) IB pulse in fast electric field change records. The E-change data for 217 flashes indicate that all CG and IC flashes have IB pulses. The luminosity bursts of 14 negative CG flashes occur 11-340 ms before the first return stroke, at altitudes of 4-8 km, and at 4-41 km range from the camera. In seven cases, linear segments visibly advance away from the first light burst for 55-200 s, then the entire length dims, then the luminosity sequence repeats along the same path. These visible initial leaders or streamers lengthen intermittently to about 300-1500 m. Their estimated 2-D speeds are 4-18 105 m s-1 over the first few hundred microseconds and decrease by about 50% over the first 2 ms. In other cases, only a bright spot or a broad area of diffuse light, presumably scattered by intervening cloud, is visible. The bright area grows larger over 20-60 s before the luminosity fades in about 100 s, then this sequence may repeat several times. In several flashes, a 1-2 ms period of little or no luminosity and small E-change is observed following the IB stage prior to stepped leader development. 2013. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Stolzenburg, M., Marshall, T. C., Karunarathne, S., Karunarathna, N., Vickers, L. E., Warner, T. A., Orville, R. E., & Betz, H.

citation count

  • 79

complete list of authors

  • Stolzenburg, M||Marshall, TC||Karunarathne, S||Karunarathna, N||Vickers, LE||Warner, TA||Orville, RE||Betz, H-D

publication date

  • April 2013