NOx from lightning: 1. Global distribution based on lightning physics


  • Colin Price,

  • Joyce Penner,

  • Michael Prather


This paper begins a study on the role of lightning in maintaining the global distribution of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the troposphere. It presents the first global and seasonal distributions of lightning-produced NOx (LNOx) based on the observed distribution of electrical storms and the physical properties of lightning strokes. We derive a global rate for cloud-to-ground (CG) flashes of 20–30 flashes/s with a mean energy per flash of 6.7×109 J. Intracloud (IC) flashes are more frequent, 50–70 flashes/s but have 10% of the energy of CG strokes and, consequently, produce significantly less NOx. It appears to us that the majority of previous studies have mistakenly assumed that all lightning flashes produce the same amount of NOx, thus overestimating the NOx production by a factor of 3. On the other hand, we feel these same studies have underestimated the energy released in CG flashes, resulting in two negating assumptions. For CG energies we adopt a production rate of 10×1016 molecules NO/J based on the current literature. Using a method to simulate global lightning frequencies from satellite-observed cloud data, we have calculated the LNOx on various spatial (regional, zonal, meridional, and global) and temporal scales (daily, monthly, seasonal, and interannual). Regionally, the production of LNOx is concentrated over tropical continental regions, predominantly in the summer hemisphere. The annual mean production rate is calculated to be 12.2 Tg N/yr, and we believe it extremely unlikely that this number is less than 5 or more than 20 Tg N/yr. Although most of LNOx, is produced in the lowest 5 km by CG lightning, convective mixing in the thunderstorms is likely to deposit large amounts of NOx, in the upper troposphere where it is important in ozone production. On an annual basis, 64% of the LNOx, is produced in the northern hemisphere, implying that the northern hemisphere should have natural ozone levels as much as 2 times greater than the southern hemisphere, even before anthropogenic influences. The amount of O3 produced from this NOx is expected to exceed the stratospheric source by a factor of 1.5, and thus the hemispheric asymmetry in LNOx would lead to a significant excess of northern hemisphere O3 even in the preindustrial troposphere. (The monthly climatologies for LNOx on a 1°×1° latitude-longitude grid can be obtained by e-mail to