Electric discharge on tree leaves could impact air quality

Electric discharge on tree leaves could impact air quality
Electric discharge on tree leaves could impact air quality

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Thunderstorms that produce lightning cause weak electrical discharges called corona to occur on tree leaves, and a new study has found it could impact air quality.

The team from Penn State discovered coronas generate large amounts of the hydroxyl radical (OH) and the hydro-peroxyl radical (HO2). OH initiates chemical reactions that clean the air of greenhouse gases but also produce ozone and aerosol pollution.

Scientists say corona-generated OH may increase around trees by 100 to 1,000 times during a thunderstorm.

“The hydroxyl radical contributes to the total atmospheric oxidation of many atmospheric pollutants, including the greenhouse gas methane, improving air quality, and slowing climate change. However, these reactions can also lead to the formation of ozone and small aerosol particles, negatively affecting air quality and climate,” Willian Brune, distinguished professor of meteorology at Penn State, said in a statement.

PENN STATE - corona spruce positive negative
PENN STATE - corona spruce positive negative

Weak electrical discharges, called corona, can form on tree leaves during thunderstorms Credit: Penn State

“So understanding all the potential sources of OH is important for predicting future air quality and climate.”

How much impact could a tiny electrical discharge have? Not much individually.

But there are about two trillion trees in parts of the world where thunderstorms are most likely to occur - and eighteen-hundred thunderstorms happening at any given time. Researchers don't know what impact the air quality change has on the environment but say it's worth more investigation, given the scale of the areas affected.

Scientists now want to understand how many coronas form during a typical storm, how long they last, and what other environmental factors - like the wind - may influence the process.