Understanding the Earth’s ionosphere to improve communications

Solar flares jetting out from the Sun and thunderstorms on Earth influence the planet’s ionosphere in various ways, which has consequences for the capacity to perform long range communications.

Using data gathered by the Incoherent Scatter Radar (ISR) at the Arecibo Observatory, satellites, and lightning detectors in Puerto Rico, for the first time, a group of scientists have observed the concurrent influences of thunderstorms and solar flares on the ionospheric D-region, which is commonly known as the edge of space.

The researchers concluded that solar flares and lightning from thunderstorms cause distinctive shifts to the edge of space, which is needed for long-range communications such the GPS found in vehicles and aeroplanes .

The research, led by New Mexico Tech assistant professor of physics Caitano L. da Silva, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“These are really exciting results,” said da Silva. “One of the key things we showed in the paper is that lightning and solar flare-driven signatures are completely different. The first tends to create electron density depletions, while the second enhancements (or ionisation).”

Whilst the AO radar employed in the study is no longer available because of the collapse of AO’s telescope in December of 2020, researchers believe that the data they accumulated and other AO historical data will be instrumental in advancing this work.

“This study helps emphasise that, in order to fully understand the coupling of atmospheric regions, energy input from below (from thunderstorms) into the lower ionosphere needs to be properly accounted for,” added da Silva. “The wealth of data collected at AO over the years will be a transformative tool to quantify the effects of lightning in the lower ionosphere.”

da Silva worked alongside a group of scientists at the Arecibo Observatory (AO) in Puerto Rico, a National Science Foundation facility managed by the University of Central Florida under a cooperative agreement. The co-authors are AO Senior Scientist Pedrina Terra, Assistant Director of Science Operations Christiano G. M. Brum and Sophia D. Salazar a student at NMT.

“Another remarkable result of this work is that for the first time, a mapping of the spatial and seasonal occurrence of lightning strike over the region of the Puerto Rico archipelago is presented,” Brum concluded. “Intriguing was also the detection of a lighting activity hotspot concentrated in the western part of La Cordillera Central mountain range of Puerto Rico.”

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