Could tiny terrestrial gamma-ray radiation flashes harm airline passengers?

NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope will join the search for mysterious gamma-ray flashes above thunderstorms, which are ultrabrief but could be hazardous to air travelers. "Just one millisecond blast of the so-called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) could expose passengers and crew aboard a nearby jetliner to the same level of radiation as 400 chest X-rays, according to a recent study."


    1. Between this and lethal hot dogs, we’re doomed. DOOMED!”

      Don’t worry, I have the answer:

      1. Load lethal hot dogs aboard jetliner.

      2. Fly jetliner above thunderstorm.

      3. Expose hot dogs to flashes of gamma radiation.

      4. Land jetliner.

      5. Serve hot dogs to FAA investigators.

      It’s the perfect crime, because the investigators eat the evidence!

  1. Gamma Rays? They better give everyone plenty of complimentary beverages afterwords… The last thing you want is a plane load of people turning green, ripping through their clothes, and screaming “Puny Human” as they rip the plane to shreds.

  2. Being exposed to Gamma Rays while in a space flight is how the Fantastic Four got their powers.

    We do have to worry about passengers gaining super powers and becoming super villains, because that happens sometimes too.

    1. Sorry, the Fantastic Four got their powers from Cosmic Rays (TAC! TAC! TAC!) The Incredible Hulk got his powers from Gamma Rays.

  3. I always take a paper-back sized, geiger counter with me when I fly. It crackles so fast the sound is like steady radio static. The airline staff always ask me about it and it seems to make them worried because they don’t like to think about how much radiation they are soaking up in the course of their jobs. I’ve always wondered if the cancer rates are higher with air crews and how many hours they fly and how much radiation they absorb.

    1. I used to carry a film-badge dosimeter when I worked for an engineering company, using a nuclear density gauge to measure asphalt and soil density. I was told the machine didn’t put out any more radiation than you get from direct sunlight, but that didn’t make me feel any better, since I was usually out all day in direct sunlight using it.

  4. Nope – cosmic rays for the FF. Christopher is bang on, so stop disagreeing before you make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry!

  5. A Faraday Cage would be for EMP. You need lead shielding or a VERY strong magnetic field around the plane for gammas.

  6. This is very interesting as it is a new phenomenon. The only thing you could do is define weather conditions where they might occur and avoid them. Distance will reduce exposure very quickly so if it is 400 chest x-rays at 100 feet, then it is less than a tenth (0.1) of a chest x-ray at 1 mile. Shielding isn’t really an option.

    Also, chest x-rays aren’t very powerful or dangerous. They are about 0.1mSv. So 400x is 40mSv. The limit in US law for radiation workers is 50mSv per year…so for frequent travelers or airline crews, it is possible (through random chance) to receive a dose above the safety limit.

    However, that limit is designed with an incredible safety margin.

    As per the Health Physics Society, “However, below 50–100 millisievert (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent.”

    And, “Thus, for populations in which almost all individuals are estimated to receive a lifetime dose of less than 100 mSv above background, collective dose is a highly speculative and uncertain measure of risk
    and should not be used for the purpose of estimating population health risks.”

    1. The radiation hazard to airline crews is bog-standard secondary cosmic-ray radiation and not anything related to the lightning gamma rays. As Boing Boing pointed out nearly five years ago:, you can measure it yourself; the rate is about 40x what I get in Chicago: Anyways, if you want to read up on the energetic photons coming out of lightning check out Joseph Dwyer’s research out of Florida:

  7. I once took my trusty gamma-ray scintillometer (pre-9/11) on a day time flight. The background radiation is roughly 10x what it is on the ground.

Comments are closed.