Fast negative breakdown in thunderstorms

Julia N. Tilles, Ningyu Liu, Mark A. Stanley, Paul R. Krehbiel, William Rison, Michael G. Stock, Joseph R. Dwyer, Robert Brown, Jennifer Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Thunderstorms are natural laboratories for studying electrical discharges in air, where the vast temporal, spatial, and energy scales available can spawn surprising phenomena that reveal deficiencies in our understanding of dielectric breakdown. Recent discoveries, such as sprites, jets, terrestrial gamma ray flashes, and fast positive breakdown, highlight the diversity of complex phenomena that thunderstorms can produce, and point to the possibility for electrical breakdown/discharge mechanisms beyond dielectric breakdown theory based mainly on laboratory experiments. Here we present one such confounding discovery, termed fast negative breakdown, that does not fit with our current understanding of dielectric breakdown. Our adaptation of radio astronomy imaging techniques to study extremely transient lightning-associated events confirms that electrical breakdown in thunderstorms can begin with oppositely-directed fast breakdown of negative polarity, similar and in addition to fast positive breakdown expected from conventional dielectric theory and recent observations. The discovery of fast negative breakdown calls for an addendum to the physical description of electrical discharges in air.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1648
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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