Could lightning be the solution to fight greenhouse gases?

New research signals that lightning can clear the air of harmful substances.

Video Transcript

EMMY VICTOR: When dark clouds form and lightning strikes, most people take cover or go inside. While lightning flashes can be scary, new research shows they can be good for the environment.

WILLIAM BRUNE: Like, lightning is very complex. It has bolts, but also it has all sorts of other electrical discharges associated with us, with it. And so those sort of discharges can break apart molecules just like they can trees.

EMMY VICTOR: William Brune, a professor at Penn State, is one of the authors of the study. He says lightning produces molecules capable of dissolving methane and other harmful greenhouse gases.

WILLIAM BRUNE: Basically, it all comes down to one very small molecule called hydroxyl, which is simply OH. Lightning essentially, by mechanisms that are known, and now this new one that we discovered, actually produces OH. And so by producing OH, it's increasing the cleansing power of the atmosphere.

EMMY VICTOR: Brune says this research is the first step in more discoveries about lightning, the nexus to learn how lightning interacts with each individual gas in the atmosphere.

WILLIAM BRUNE: If you're talking about methane, that's one thing. If you're talking about carbon monoxide, which is everywhere globally, that's another very different thing in terms of what its effect can be.

EMMY VICTOR: Another is to determine just how much lightning can clear the air and which areas would see the greatest benefit.

WILLIAM BRUNE: There's more lightning in the tropics than there is in middle latitudes. And the structures of the storms are very different. And you know what? We've measured in two Hi Plain storms, one in Colorado, one in Texas, Oklahoma. We have not measured anything in the tropics.

EMMY VICTOR: The researchers hope that surveying more storms can help scientists understand the role thunderstorms play in reducing pollution. For AccuWeather, I'm Emmy Victor.