New information about lightning-emitted X-rays, gamma rays and high-energy electrons during thunderstorms is prompting scientists to raise concerns about the potential for airline passengers and crews to be exposed to harmful levels of radiation.
Scientists at the Florida Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Florida have estimated that airplane passengers could be exposed to a radiation dose equal to that from 400 chest X-rays if their airplane happens to be near the start of a lightning discharge or related phenomena known as a terrestrial gamma ray flash.
The big unknown: how often — if ever — commercial airliners are exposed to these thunderstorm events, because the bursts of radiation occur only over extremely brief periods and extend just a few hundred feet in the clouds.
“We know that commercial airplanes are typically struck by lightning once or twice a year,” said Joe Dwyer, professor of physics and space sciences at Florida Tech. “What we don't know is how often planes happen to be in just the right place or right time to receive a high radiation dose. We believe it is very rare, but more research is needed to answer the question definitively.”
Dwyer is the lead author of a paper about the research set to appear in the Journal for Geophysical Research — Atmospheres. Seven researchers from Florida Tech, UC Santa Cruz and UF contributed to the paper. “Estimation of the fluence of high-energy electron bursts produced by thunderclouds and the resulting radiation doses received in aircraft.” It is free and downloadable online from the journal's “papers in press” page. The link is here .
The authors did not measure high radiation doses directly with airplanes. Instead, they estimated radiation based on satellite and ground-based observations of X-rays and gamma rays.