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"Dark Lightning" Could Expose Airline Passengers To Radiation 263

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the amtrak-doesn't-cause-cancer dept.
mbstone writes "Lightning researcher Joseph Dwyer of the Florida Institute of Technology claims that thunderstorms unleash sprays of X-rays and even intense bursts of gamma rays which could cause airline passengers to receive in an instant the maximum safe lifetime dose of ionizing radiation — the kind that wreaks the most havoc on the human body. Dwyer hopes his sensor aboard the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, will provide more data."
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"Dark Lightning" Could Expose Airline Passengers To Radiation

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  • Hrmmm (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:13AM (#43399127)

    I smell a boost in tinfoil hat sales skyrocketing ....

    • Re:Hrmmm (Score:4, Funny)

      by telchine (719345) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:18AM (#43399155)

      I propose that we should legislate to ensure that all the passengers are wrapped inside one metal enclosure before take-off!

      • by boaworm (180781)

        I always wear my tinfoil hat for this reason. It is a bit of a hazzle to get through security, but after that it's great!

        • Tinfoil does not set off metal detectors.

          Yes, I have first-hand knowledge of this.

          • Re:Hrmmm (Score:5, Funny)

            by myowntrueself (607117) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @05:34AM (#43399417)

            Tinfoil does not set off metal detectors.

            Yes, I have first-hand knowledge of this.

            That can't be right, I saw a tinfoil covered cucumber set off a metal detector in the Spinal Tap documentary!

          • by cffrost (885375)

            Tinfoil does not set off metal detectors.

            Yes, I have first-hand knowledge of this.

            Where did you get the tin foil? This is the closest I can find, [amazon.com] but at 0.008" thick, it's more than ten times thicker than standard aluminum foil.

          • Interesting. My son was once stopped at the metal detectors because of a gum wrapper in his pocket set it off. The TSA guy claimed he saw it all the time.
      • Re:Hrmmm (Score:5, Interesting)

        by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:09AM (#43400135) Journal

        You and everybody else is making jokes but did you forget we thought "radiation is your friend" and even looked at using nukes to make harbors in the 50s and in the 40s nearly every boat and a lot of the tanks used asbestos "for the safety of the men" because of its fireproof qualities?

        I'll never forget a lecture I saw by Neil Tyson where he said "All great scientists work at the edge of ignorance" and he's right, if its one thing that science has taught us is that we REALLY don't know as much about how everything works as we THINK we do. Now is this happening? I do not know which is why i look forward to his findings, it would explain why we seem to have a lot more cases of cancer, at least from what I've seen. Maybe some people are more sensitive to this than others, like how some people can smoke all their lives and never get cancer while somebody else smokes 5 years and gets it, who knows? All I DO know is if it turns out to be true it wouldn't surprise me, anymore than it surprises me we knew so little about radiation and asbestos back in the day. We still have so much to learn about how everything works, especially hard to study things like lightning.

    • by MTEK (2826397)
      "Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain has turned on the 'tinfoil bag' sign."
  • FUD summary as usual (Score:5, Informative)

    by N1AK (864906) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:19AM (#43399161) Homepage

    However, because there’s only about one dark lightning occurrence for every thousand visible flashes and because pilots take great pains to avoid thunderstorms, Dwyer says, the risk of injury is quite limited. No one knows for sure if anyone has ever been hit by dark lightning.

    It's an interesting claim and I look forward to hearing more about it but there is effectively no risk to people flying being suggested. Unfortunately /. has decided to focus on the non-existent risk rather than the rather interesting properties of 'dark lightning' and what study of it could help us to understand.

    • by macraig (621737) <.mark.a.craig. .at. .gmail.com.> on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:45AM (#43399247)

      Not so fast, mister cynic. First the article says "one dark lightning occurrence for every thousand visible flashes" and then shortly afterward "thunderstorms produce about a billion or so lightning bolts annually".

      So that's one million "dark lightning" incidents every year, and how many global aircraft flights? Avoidance of thunderstorms or not, odds are it's been happening and we didn't know to look for symptoms until now.

      • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @05:16AM (#43399341) Homepage

        we didn't know to look for symptoms until now.

        Still, if you have to looking for symptoms, it can't be that bad.

        • by OolimPhon (1120895) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @05:23AM (#43399373)

          Still, if you have to looking for symptoms, it can't be that bad.

          The symptoms, in the form of radiation damage, don't appear until many years afterwards. Like the damage cigarettes cause, for example.

          How do you associate your cancer to the airplane rides you took 20 years previously?

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Most cancers from cigarettes are I believe caused because the layer of tar prevents the body from repairing itself normally. After a couple of years off them the tar and other negative effects should have dispersed for the most part.

            What I don't get about this research is why they don't just stick a few geiger counters and recorders on planes and fly them near thunderstorms, surely that would be the best way to test the theory? Also, is there any chance this could lead to the return of zeppelins, because th

            • by muon-catalyzed (2483394) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @06:33AM (#43399621)
              > just stick a few geiger counters and recorders on planes and fly them near thunderstorms

              Rewind the footage to about 5:00 when the airplane is at about the cruising altitude, it is that bad, even without the pesky thunderstorms.
              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2IMEk1dvNw [youtube.com]
            • by ultranova (717540)

              Also, is there any chance this could lead to the return of zeppelins, because that would be awesome.

              Well, I guess having the whole thing go down in a blaze and burning everyone inside to ashes is one way to ensure they don't get cancer.

              • by drinkypoo (153816)

                Well, I guess having the whole thing go down in a blaze and burning everyone inside to ashes is one way to ensure they don't get cancer.

                The majority of people got off the Hindenburg. Jokes are funnier when they're based on truth.

                • by rossdee (243626)

                  Not to mention that any modern dirigible would use Helium for a lift gas rather than Hydrogen, and not be coated wit rocket fuel.
                  The Hindenburg was designed for Helium, but we didb't want to give/sell them any. The USA had a monopoly at that time.

                  • by drinkypoo (153816)

                    Not to mention that any modern dirigible would use Helium for a lift gas rather than Hydrogen, and not be coated wit rocket fuel.

                    Disagree and agree, respectively. Hydrogen is everywhere and Helium is running short and getting more expensive. New hydrogen barriers are developed all the time, and Helium requires special barriers as well.

                    I recently had an idea which would make for some nice scenes in anime or something; homes that convert into dirigibles so they can be moved. The weather only plays along for a couple months a year, of course. I'm imagining a big structured net bag full of separate hydrogen bags, connected to a compresso

                    • by doom (14564)

                      Hydrogen is everywhere and Helium is running short and getting more expensive. New hydrogen barriers are developed all the time, and Helium requires special barriers as well.

                      Heh. Your point is that a careful assessment of modern technical capabilities would conclude that hydrogen-filled lifting bodies can be built and operated relatively safely, and have technical and economic advantages, and therefore will be used.

                      Now, let me introduce you to the nuclear power debate.

            • Also, is there any chance this could lead to the return of zeppelins, because that would be awesome.

              Of course they'd need radiation shielding. Something like lead?

          • by lxs (131946)

            You don't. Of course you may have been hit with a much larger dose just now and don't even know it. Some cosmic rays are quite energetic. [wikipedia.org]

          • by Lumpy (12016)

            "How do you associate your cancer to the airplane rides you took 20 years previously?"

            Well mostly lung cancer from them allowing smoking at that time....

          • by gadzook33 (740455)
            Also, I was under the impression that there was an unexplained increase in the number of cancer incidents in the last several decades. Clearly it's a long-shot but it does seem like it's worth investigating...
            • Well, your impression isn't exactly concordant with the facts (it's complicated [cancer.gov]):

              Between 2000 and 2009, overall cancer incidence rates decreased by 0.6 percent per year among men, were stable among women, and increased by 0.6 percent per year among children (ages 0 to 14 years). During that time period, incidence rates among men decreased for five of the 17 most common cancers (prostate, lung, colon and rectum, stomach, and larynx) and increased for six others (kidney, pancreas, liver, thyroid, melanoma of the skin, and myeloma). Among women, incidence rates decreased for seven of the 18 most common cancers (lung, colon and rectum, bladder, cervix, oral cavity and pharynx, ovary, and stomach), and increased for seven others (thyroid, melanoma of the skin, kidney, pancreas, leukemia, liver, and uterus). Incidence rates were stable for the other top 17 cancers, including breast cancer in women and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in men and women.

          • by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:26AM (#43400291) Journal

            Well this should be easy enough -- there are tens of thousands of retired lifetime commercial pilots already. Do they have increased cancer risks?

            Stop blathering and look into it. I would think such would have been discovered already, in fact.

          • by Solandri (704621)

            How do you associate your cancer to the airplane rides you took 20 years previously?

            Why bother? Since the risk here is directly proportional to the time spent flying, just compare cancer rates among pilots and stewardesses vs. the general population.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by N1AK (864906)
        A billion lightning bolts really doesn't tell us very much and I'd be disinclined to just pretend that 'dark lightning' behaves in the same manner; however if it was, and if it did, then the odds of being hit by lightning ~1/1,000,000, thus odds of 'dark lightning' hitting you is ~1/1,000,000,000. If you're making any kind of decision based on a 1 in 1 billion chance of something happening to you each year then you are wasting your time.

        As I said, the research is interesting and I look forward to seeing
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          “Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

          Terry Pratchett, Mort

          NOW what do you say.

        • by macraig (621737)

          I wasn't giving it undue weight; I know it's more likely to be maimed some other way. It just seemed to me to have non-zero probability, not non-existent.

          Regardless whether you liked the article's tone and focus or not, it's obvious we'll be reading more about it later, including the physics behind it. Since we already have obsessed storm and tornado chasers, I predict that some rich dudes with their own private planes will outfit them with gear and start flying them right into lightning storms just to se

      • by cffrost (885375)

        So that's one million "dark lightning" incidents every year, and how many global aircraft flights? Avoidance of thunderstorms or not, odds are it's been happening and we didn't know to look for symptoms until now.

        I think it'd be interesting to find out if whole plane-loads of cancer patients could be traced back to individual flights — and to consider that this phenomenon could have been occurring since the beginning of the airline industry.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        I don't get why the guy wants telescope to do the job though.

        just put some sensors on the airplanes...

      • by Xest (935314)

        "So that's one million "dark lightning" incidents every year, and how many global aircraft flights? Avoidance of thunderstorms or not, odds are it's been happening and we didn't know to look for symptoms until now."

        You can't just dismiss avoidance of thunder storms, have a look at this map:

        http://geology.com/articles/lightning-map.shtml [geology.com]

        You're far more likely to be close to a lightning strike led in your bed at night, than you are in a plane on a transatlantic flight or whatever because as the map shows, the

  • by Dodgy G33za (1669772) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:24AM (#43399185)

    Should be really easy to study - are aircrew more likely to suffer the ill effects of ionizing radiation, whatever those are.

    It would be the sort of thing that an established Airline and staff (or air force) would probably already have noticed, particularly any that fly through and around the intense storms in the tropics. The fact that they haven't leads me to think that this may be a non-story.

    • by telchine (719345) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @05:35AM (#43399421)

      Should be really easy to study - are aircrew more likely to suffer the ill effects of ionizing radiation, whatever those are.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/557340.stm [bbc.co.uk]

    • by stenvar (2789879) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @06:14AM (#43399541)

      It's been studied. Airline pilots get more melanoma than the rest of us, probably from hanging out on nice beaches too much. They don't get any of the other cancers you'd predict from large bursts of x-rays or gamma rays any more than anybody else.

    • by jittles (1613415)

      Should be really easy to study - are aircrew more likely to suffer the ill effects of ionizing radiation, whatever those are.

      It would be the sort of thing that an established Airline and staff (or air force) would probably already have noticed, particularly any that fly through and around the intense storms in the tropics. The fact that they haven't leads me to think that this may be a non-story.

      I have an uncle who used to drop nuclear bombs for the USAF when they were doing all those open bomb tests in Nevada, the Bikini islands, and what not. According to him, every survivng man in his unit has had to have the major arteries in their legs some 30-40 years after they did those bomb tests.

  • by nukenerd (172703) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:26AM (#43399195)
    It being common knowledge that flying is subject to higher than normal radiation levels, and there is therefore a worry about crews, I had assumed that aircraft carried dosimeters so that crew members' total personal doses were monitored. No? If so, then this would not be a theory - it could be checked from the monitoring.

    If they do not carry dosimeters, why not? Ground level radiation workers have to by law. I am a nuclear engineer and do so on visits to plant - yet my total life dose over some years of this is tiny, less than typical aircrew would have I believe.
    • by Archtech (159117)

      If they do not carry dosimeters, why not?

      It's an avoidable business expense. As most airlines are either bankrupt or teetering on the edge, they don't spend a red cent more than they absolutely have to.

      • by Chrisq (894406) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @04:48AM (#43399259)

        If they do not carry dosimeters, why not?

        It's an avoidable business expense. As most airlines are either bankrupt or teetering on the edge, they don't spend a red cent more than they absolutely have to.

        Plus why carry something that could only give your airline bad publicity, and open up the possibility of being sued for "not taking sufficient evasive measures".

        • by b4upoo (166390)

          Maybe there is a lot of money in owning bankrupt airlines. In all seriousness we do see endless parades of airlines coming and going out of business. If they are such an awful monetary risk would we really see them cropping up? One way or another airlines make money whether the books and "official" paper work indicates it or not.
          It is rather like a valley full of farmers who know

          • There is a difference between the company making money and the executives getting salary + options. See what happened to Nortel in Canada, company was bled dry to the point of no money left in the disability and pension funds, and executives were giving themselves $200 million bonuses. When there is that much money to suck out of a company, there are plenty of people who see it as viable.

    • by jma34 (591871) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @05:03AM (#43399295)

      There are dosimeters on board. I have completed several radiation safety courses during my work and radiation levels for airline crew are monitored and tracked just like they are for workers in nuclear and other research fields. Frequent fliers are not monitored and tracked. I work at CERN and I know exactly how much ionizing and neutron dose I receive during my work, but I also have to travel between my home at Fermilab and CERN and I have no idea how much dose I receive on my trans-Atlantic flights. The pilot of the plane is monitored and his dose is tracked. That pilot should also have access to his personal dose, but I don't know what the level of transparency is in the airline industry. So if there were a significant likelihood, the data is there.

      Speaking from a physics point of view, a huge acceleration is need to produce x-ray and gamma rays. And they aren't hard to detect. It would seem that a balloon experiment flying some CsI or other crystals in some thunderstorms would quickly detect this phenomena even if it is 1/1000 or even 1/10000.

      • (Taking the opportunity that there's a physicist around)

        And what about the numbers of photon? (Sorry, not the correct term, but I think you see what you mean. I'm an MD and currently too lazy to dig the correct terminology).

        I mean, yes X-Rays can be highly energetic and Gamma even more so. But I'm under the impression that the higher the energy, the lesser the amount of produced rays.
        Ultimately, we might find real proof that indeed very high energetic Gamma rays might be produced occasionally, but practical

      • by FirstOne (193462)

        "There are dosimeters on board. I have completed several radiation safety courses during my work and radiation levels for airline crew are monitored and tracked just like they are for workers in nuclear and other research fields."

        Unfortunately for them, typical dosimeters only detect BETA(energetic electron) radiation. Gamma radiation(high energy photon) detection requires 3D type sensor with significant mass (large crystal in light tight box).

        Gamma energy level photons have a tendency of passing thr

    • by dywolf (2673597)

      theres a huge difference, both type and quantity, between the radiation a fligth crew is possibly exposed to and the radiation a nuclear plant worker is possibly exposed to.

  • The article basically says no one has probably ever been hit. The incidence of dark lightening is about 1/1000th the incidence of visible lightening and pilots avoid thunderstorms.

  • by stenvar (2789879) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @06:08AM (#43399523)

    People have been flying for many decades. Epidemiologically, there is a significant increase among airline pilots only of melanoma and breast cancer, not of other cancer types. That's not consistent with occasional large bursts of x-ray and gamma radiation (it may be due to leisure activities).

  • As usual I wikipedia something like "dark lightning" that i've never heard of before. Nothing found, but wikipedia search is pretty crap.

    Anyway the best I could find was Relativistic-runaway-electron avalanche [wikipedia.org]

    • As usual I wikipedia something like "dark lightning" that i've never heard of before. Nothing found, but wikipedia search is pretty crap.

      It sounds similar to and is probably as dangerous as the dark quickening. Now imagine *that* happening to an airplane full of people!

  • regulations (Score:5, Funny)

    by ssam (2723487) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @06:09AM (#43399527)

    Airlines should be subject to the same regulations as nuclear power. All planes should have a few meters of lean and concrete shielding to protect the passengers. Anything that saves one childs life should be done.

  • by KonoWatakushi (910213) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @07:01AM (#43399703)

    Radiation damage isn't cumulative. If it were, you would see greater incidences of cancer in areas with higher naturally occurring background radiation, or in workers with greater exposure. Unless you overwhelm your body's repair mechanisms, the damage is essentially harmless and repair is a natural part of everyday life. Low levels of radiation are much less dangerous than ordinary carcinogens and particulate that we are dumping into our environment by the billions of tons every year.

    Granted, this so-called dark lightning may exceed safe levels over short periods of time. Then again, if you are struck by lightning, you will also probably exceed a maximum safe number of electrons transiting through your body. This would appear to be an extremely rare, if not entirely imaginary problem. To my knowledge, there have't been any planefuls of people who have died of acute radiation exposure.

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      Radiation damage isn't cumulative. If it were, you would see greater incidences of cancer You are committing the logical fallacy of asserting the consequent, without a shred of proof for anything you say. Moreover, death is not the only possible result of radiation exposure.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Radation dammage comes in two forms. Massive doses can cause acute dammage; 'radiation poisoning' and kill you quickly.
      Radiation exposure can also trigger cancers at any dose.
      Nuclear regulatory agencies use the "linear, no threshold" model for guaging radiation exposure risk. Essentialy, any ionizing radiation absorbed by your body has a chance of triggering a cancer. The more exposure you have, the more chances you have.

      Think of it this way: every unit of radiation exposure is like a cancer lottery tic

  • Do the use of "Composite" aircraft (i.e. Dreamliner) skins make this worse - as there is less of a Faraday cage around people?
  • by QilessQi (2044624) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @07:36AM (#43399905)

    Then don't get those flight attendants angry. You wouldn't like them when they're angry.

  • Dwyer hopes his sensor aboard the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, will provide more data."

    The "sensor" referred to in the article appears to be the main instrument on board the Fermi spacecraft: the not very imaginatively named Large Area Telescope,
    or LAT. This was developed by a very large international team, including NASA and the DoE in the US. However, Dwyer, as far as I know, was not
    a member of this large team. (And I don't think the article or Dwyer actually claim this.)
    The data obtained from the LAT are made public as soon as possible, usually within much less than 24 hours,
    after being ob

  • From the article

    However, because there’s only about one dark lightning occurrence for every thousand visible flashes and because pilots take great pains to avoid thunderstorms, Dwyer says, the risk of injury is quite limited. No one knows for sure if anyone has ever been hit by dark lightning.

  • X-Ray and, esp, gamma ray cannot travel too for through air....

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