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Bursts of X-rays discovered in hurricanes

Gamma radiation observed for the first time.

A downward positron beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash was first captured by an instrument flown through the eyewall of Hurricane Patricia.
A downward positron beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash was first captured by an instrument flown through the eyewall of Hurricane Patricia.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Hurricane winds and surge are violent enough but now scientists detected powerful gamma-rays and X-rays bursting downward from the eyewall.

The discovery is an extraordinary event that was predicted by theoretical physics and has now been observed for the first time.

The beams of dangerous radiation are the result of positrons, the antimatter counterpart of electrons created in the lightning centered around the hurricane center.

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz built an airborne detector and flew it aboard NOAA's Hurricane Hunters to observe terrestrial gamma flashes or TGFs up close.

Acting like enormous particle accelerators, the storms can emit TGF radiation down toward the surface.

An individuals exposed to small doses of gamma radiation can develop a mild case of radiation poisoning and getting too close to a TGF could be hazardous.

The risk drops off rapidly as distance from the source increases and beyond one kilometer it would be negligible, according to David Smith, a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz. 

"It's hypothetically a risk, but the odds are quite small," he said.  


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