The World Meteorological Organization recently declared lightning an essential climate variable which makes the global lightning flash rate density a key quantity, currently assessed by geostationary satellites and ground-based lightning location networks. Yet, no theory has been put forward to explain the physical relationships between the thermodynamic temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere T, the global lightning flash occurrence frequency f g, and its radiant energy E of resonant electromagnetic waves within the Earth ionosphere cavity. These three parameters are combined here by adapting the rigorous framework of quantum physics. The minimum amount of radiant energy produced by the lightning flash occurrence frequency is the global lightning quantum E = hf g, h being Planck’s constant. The superposition of numerous global lightning quanta distributes its radiant energy around the world as Earth ionosphere cavity resonances. The novel theory is in agreement with measurements using a radiometer at Arrival Heights, Antarctica, as part of the Stanford ELF/VLF Radio Noise Survey. It is found that the measurements agree with the theory within ∼30%. The operation of the theory is illustrated with an interpretation of the measurements for an exemplary thermodynamic energy. In this case, the measurements correspond to a radiant temperature ∼−30°C akin to the mixed phase region of thunderclouds where lightning discharges are initiated. The theory can help to assess the mutual impact of climate change and global lightning on each other as proposed by the World Meteorological Organization.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020JD033201
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research : Atmospheres
Issue number9
Early online date5 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 16 May 2021


  • atmospheric and space electricity
  • electromagnetic noise
  • lightning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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