Environmental control of cloud-to-ground lightning polarity in severe storms



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In this study, it is hypothesized that the mesoscale environment can indirectly control the cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning polarity of severe storms by directly affecting their structural, dynamical, and microphysical properties, which in turn directly control cloud electrification and CG flash polarity. A more specific hypothesis, which has been supported by past observational and laboratory charging studies, suggests that broad, strong updrafts and associated large liquid water contents in severe storms lead to enhanced positive charging of graupel and hail via the noninductive charging mechanism, the generation of an inverted charge structure, and increased positive CG lightning production. The corollary is that environmental conditions favoring these kinematic and microphysical characteristics should support severe storms generating an anomalously high (> 25%) percentage of positive CG lightning (i.e., positive storms), while environmental conditions relatively less favorable should sustain storms characterized by a typical (? 25%) percentage of positive CG lightning (i.e., negative storms). Forty-eight inflow proximity soundings were analyzed to characterize the environments of nine distinct mesoscale regions of severe storms (four positive and five negative) on six days during May ? June 2002 over the central United States. This analysis clearly demonstrated significant and systematic differences in the mesoscale environments of positive and negative storms, which were consistent with the stated hypothesis. When compared to negative storms, positive storms occurred in environments associated with a drier low to midtroposphere, higher cloud base height, smaller warm cloud depth, stronger conditional instability, larger 0-3 km AGL wind shear, stronger 0-2 km AGL storm-relative wind speed, and larger buoyancy in the mixed-phase zone, at a statistically significant level. Differences in the warm cloud depth of positive and negative storms were by far the most dramatic, suggesting an important role for this parameter in controlling CG lightning polarity. Subjective visual inspection of radar imagery revealed no strong relationship between convective mode and CG lightning polarity, and also illustrated that positive and negative severe storms can be equally intense.