Propagation and Dispersion of Lightning-Generated Whistlers Measured From the Van Allen Probes

J. F. Ripoll, T. Farges, D. M. Malaspina, G. S. Cunningham, G. B. Hospodarsky, C. A. Kletzing, J. R. Wygant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We study the propagation and attenuation of lightning-generated whistler (LGW) waves in near-Earth space (L ≤ 3) through the statistical study of three specific quantities extracted from data recorded by NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission, from 2012 to 2019: the LGW electric and magnetic power attenuation with respect to distance from a given lightning stroke, the LGW wave normal angle in space, and the frequency-integrated LGW refractive index. We find that LGW electric field wave power decays with distance mostly quadratically in space, with a power varying between -1 and -2, while the magnetic field wave power decays mostly linearly in space, with a power varying between 0 and -1. At night only, the electric wave power decays as a quadratic law and the magnetic power as a linear law, which is consistent with electric and magnetic ground measurements. Complexity of the dependence of the various quantities is maximal at the lowest L-shells (L < 1.5) and around noon, for which LGW are the rarest in Van Allen Probes measurements. In-space near-equatorial LGW wave normal angle statistics are shown for the first time with respect to magnetic local time (MLT), L-shell (L), geographic longitude, and season. A distribution of predominantly electrostatic waves is peaked at large wave normal angle. Conversely, the distribution of electromagnetic waves with large magnetic component and small electric component is peaked at small wave normal angle. Outside these limits, we show that, as the LGW electric power increases, the LGW wave normal angle increases. But, as the LGW magnetic power increases, the LGW wave normal angle distribution becomes peaked at small wave normal angle with a secondary peak at large wave normal angle. The LGW mean wave-normal angle computed over the whole data set is 41.6° with a ∼24° standard deviation. There is a strong MLT-dependence, with the wave normal angle smaller for daytime (34.4° on average at day and 46.7° at night). There is an absence of strong seasonal and continental dependences of the wave-normal angle. The statistics of the LGW refractive index show a mean LGW refractive index is 32 with a standard deviation of ∼26. There is a strong MLT-dependence, with larger refractive index for daytime 36) than for nighttime (28). Smaller refractive index is found during Northern hemisphere summer for L-shells above 1.8, which is inconsistent with Chapman ionization theory and consistent with the so-called winter/seasonal anomaly. Local minima of the mean refractive index are observed over the three continents. Cross-correlation of these wave parameters in fixed (MLT, L) bins shows that the wave normal angle and refractive index are anti-correlated; large (small) wave normal angles correspond with small (large) refractive indexes. High power attenuation during LGW propagation from the lightning source to the spacecraft is correlated with large refractive index and anti-correlated with small wave normal angle. Correlation and anti-correlation show a smooth and continuous path from one regime (i.e. large wave normal angle, small refractive index, low attenuation) to its opposite (i.e. small wave normal angle, large refractive index, large attenuation), supporting consistency of the results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number722355
JournalFrontiers in Physics
StatePublished - Aug 19 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
DM was supported for this work by NASA grant 80NSSC18K1034. The work of GSC was supported in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

Funding Information:
The authors wish to thank the World Wide Lightning Location Network (, a collaboration among over 50 universities and institutions, for providing the lightning location data used in this paper. We thank the Satellite Situation Center Locator operated on-line by NASA for providing Van Allen Probes trajectories. This work was performed under the auspices of an agreement between CEA/DAM and NNSA/DP on cooperation on fundamental science. The authors acknowledge the International Space Sciences Institute (ISSI) and the participants in a 2020 ISSI workshop in Bern. The authors thank the entire Van Allen Probes team, and especially the EFW and EMFISIS teams for their support. The EMFISIS wave data (survey-mode magnetic and electric power and L4 wave normal angle) used in this work are accessible from The EFW wave data (survey-mode magnetic and electric power) used in this work are accessible from

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Ripoll, Farges, Malaspina, Cunningham, Hospodarsky, Kletzing and Wygant.


  • Van Allen Probes
  • WWLLN database
  • attenuation laws
  • lightning-generated whistlers
  • radiation belts
  • refractive index
  • wave propagation
  • wave-normal angle


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