Understanding the Radio Spectrum of Thunderstorm Narrow Bipolar Events

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


This paper reports a study to understand the radio spectrum of thunderstorm narrow bipolar events (NBEs) or compact intracloud discharges, which are powerful sources of high-frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) electromagnetic radiation. The radio spectra from 10 kHz to about 100 MHz are obtained for three NBEs, including one caused by fast positive breakdown and two by fast negative breakdown. The results indicate that the two polarities of fast breakdown have similar spectra, with a relatively flat spectrum in the HF and VHF band. The ratio of energy spectral densities in the very low frequency and HF bands is (0.9–5) × 105. We develop a statistical modeling approach to investigate if a system of streamers can explain the main features of fast breakdown. Assuming that the current moment peak and charge moment change of individual streamers vary in the ranges of 5–10 A-m and 5–20 μC-m, respectively, the modeling results indicate that a system of 107–108 streamers can reproduce the current moment, charge transfer, and radio spectrum of fast breakdown. The rapid current variation on a time scale of nanoseconds required for fast breakdown to produce strong HF/VHF emissions is provided by exponentially accelerating and expanding streamers. Our study therefore supports the hypothesis that fast breakdown is a system of streamers. Finally, suggestions are given regarding future streamer simulations and NBE measurements in order to further develop our understanding of NBEs and lightning initiation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10134-10153
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres
Issue number17-18
StatePublished - Sep 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • compact intracloud discharges
  • high-frequency radio emissions
  • lightning
  • narrow bipolar events
  • radio spectrum
  • streamers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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