Space Science Reviews

, Volume 168, Issue 1–4, pp 363–384 | Cite as

Electromagnetic Atmosphere-Plasma Coupling: The Global Atmospheric Electric Circuit

  • Michael J. Rycroft
  • R. Giles Harrison


A description is given of the global atmospheric electric circuit operating between the Earth’s surface and the ionosphere. Attention is drawn to the huge range of horizontal and vertical spatial scales, ranging from 10−9 m to 1012 m, concerned with the many important processes at work. A similarly enormous range of time scales is involved from 10−6 s to 109 s, in the physical effects and different phenomena that need to be considered. The current flowing in the global circuit is generated by disturbed weather such as thunderstorms and electrified rain/shower clouds, mostly occurring over the Earth’s land surface. The profile of electrical conductivity up through the atmosphere, determined mainly by galactic cosmic ray ionization, is a crucial parameter of the circuit. Model simulation results on the variation of the ionospheric potential, ∼250 kV positive with respect to the Earth’s potential, following lightning discharges and sprites are summarized. Experimental results comparing global circuit variations with the neutron rate recorded at Climax, Colorado, are then discussed. Within the return (load) part of the circuit in the fair weather regions remote from the generators, charge layers exist on the upper and lower edges of extensive layer clouds; new experimental evidence for these charge layers is also reviewed. Finally, some directions for future research in the subject are suggested.


Global circuit Thunderstorms Electrified cloud generators Cosmic rays Atmospheric electrical conductivity profile Fair weather regions Ionospheric potential Lightning Sprites Layer cloud electrification 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CAESAR ConsultancyCambridgeUK
  2. 2.University of ReadingReadingUK

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