Discovery Magazine

CAREER: The Plasmochemistry and Photochemistry of the Upper Atmosphere Induced by Transient Luminous Events

Transient luminous events (TLEs) are large plasma discharges of air in the mesosphere/lower ionosphere of earth’s atmosphere, which were discovered twenty years ago. They are driven by thunderstorm and/or lightning activities and are an example of direct, energetic coupling between different atmospheric regions. The short-lived plasma discharge phase of transient luminous events introduces a unique pathway for production and loss of various important atmospheric species in the upper atmosphere.

The objectives of this project are to quantify the plasmochemical and photochemical effects of transient luminous events in the upper atmosphere and to reveal possible pathways of atmospheric species upon impact by short, impulsive plasma discharges driven by various processes. These goals will be achieved by developing and applying a self-consistent plasma discharge model to study TLEs, remote sensing of TLEs through optical spectroscopy, continuous data acquisition by building and maintaining a TLE observation site at Florida Tech, and comparing plasma discharge modeling results with satellite measurements and high-speed video observations from the ground. Successful completion of this project will not only greatly advance our current understanding of TLEs and their impacts in the upper atmosphere but also improve our knowledge of how the upper atmosphere responds to short, impulsive inputs.

The educational objectives of the project are to train the next generation of researchers in the areas of aeronomy and to foster the interest of high school students and general public in atmospheric sciences. The education activities include: 1) graduate and undergraduate student training, 2) curriculum development by incorporating elements of the research into classroom, 3) building a TLE website for data sharing and public outreach, and 4) improving high school science education by participating in the Florida Tech InSTEP program, an NSF-funded K-12 program.