Solar flare and lightning impact the edge of space in an unexpected way

Better understanding the impact on the Earth’s ionosphere will help improve communications.


Scientists have studied the simultaneous impacts of thunderstorms and solar flares on the planet’s ionospheric D-region for the first time. They determined that solar flares and lightning from thunderstorms trigger unique changes to that edge of space.

For the study, scientists used data collected by the Incoherent Scatter Radar (ISR) at the Arecibo Observatory, satellites, and lightning detectors in Puerto Rico. However, the AO rada is no longer available because of the collapse of AO’s telescope in December of 2020.

New Mexico Tech assistant professor of physics Caitano L. da Silva said, “These are really exciting results. One of the key things we showed in the paper is that lightning- and solar flare-driven signatures are completely different. The first tends to create electron density depletions, while the second “enhancements (or ionization).”

“This study helps emphasize that, to understand the coupling of atmospheric regions fully, energy input from below (from thunderstorms) into the lower ionosphere needs to be properly accounted for. The wealth of data collected at AO over the years will be a transformative tool to quantify the effects of lightning in the lower ionosphere.”

Scientists noted, “The Arecibo Observatory REU is hands down one of the best experiences I’ve had so far. The support and encouragement provided by the AO staff and REU students made the research experience everything that it was. There were many opportunities to network with scientists at AO from all over the world, many of which I would likely never have met without the AO REU.”

Assistant Director of Science Operations Christiano G. M. Brum said“Sophia’s dedication and her ability to solve problems grabbed our attention from the very first day of the REU program. Her efforts in developing this project resulted in a publication in one of the most prestigious journals in our field.”

“Another remarkable result of this work is that for the first time, a mapping of the spatial and seasonal occurrence of a lightning strike over the region of the Puerto Rico archipelago is presented. Intriguing also detected a lighting activity hotspot concentrated in the western part of La Cordillera Central mountain range of Puerto Rico.”

Better understanding the impact on the Earth’s ionosphere will help improve communications.

da Silva worked with a team of researchers at the Arecibo Observatory (AO) in Puerto Rico, a National Science Foundation facility managed by the University of Central Florida under a cooperative agreement. The co-authors are AO Senior Scientist Pedrina Terra, Assistant Director of Science Operations Christiano G. M. Brum, and Sophia D. Salazar, a student at NMT who spent her 2019 summer at the AO as part of the NSF- supported Research Undergraduate Experience. Salazar completed the initial analysis of the data as part of her internship with the senior scientists’ supervision.

Journal Reference:
  1. Caitano L. da Silva et al., Survey of electron density changes in the daytime ionosphere over the Arecibo observatory due to lightning and solar flares, Scientific Reports (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-89662-x
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