Struck by (dark) lightning: The science behind one of the biggest television shows of the year

Dark lightning was first discovered in the mid-1990s, and still to this day has researchers guessing about its effects.

About 8 million bolts of lightning strike the earth each day which equates to roughly 3 billion lightning bolts each year. However, the weather phenomenon referred to as "dark lightning" occurs much less frequently.

According to NASA, dark lighting is a mostly invisible burst of energy inside of thunderstorms that fills the sky with gamma rays. It is widely considered the most energetic radiation produced naturally on Earth. 

"Assuming dark lightning is the correct explanation for gamma-ray flashes, then perhaps for every few thousand normal lightning flashes, one might be dark lightning," said Joseph Dwyer, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire.

These rare bursts of energy produce radiation that affects the skies that aircraft fly through, but according to Dwyer you shouldn’t be too worried about flying into a dark lightning strike. 

"There could be some concern about radiation exposure," said Dwyer, who also holds a doctorate in physics, and has a research background in atmospheric radiation and physics. "However, an aircraft would have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time inside a thunderstorm."

How dark lightning has sparked a conversation

While Dwyer has been studying atmospheric physics for decades even he agrees that dark lightning was not something that was widely known by the average person. That was until the popular television series, "Manifest."  

The show follows various passengers of a fictional airline who experience severe and unusual turbulence while flying from Jamaica to New York City. When they land, the passengers learn that five-and-a-half years have passed, and they have returned with a supernatural ability to perceive events of the future.

What caused that disappearance, you ask? According to the show writers, dark lightning may have been what caused a flight full of passengers to mysteriously vanish. 

The NBC drama was canceled after three seasons and left its fan base yearning to find out what actually happened to fictional Flight 828. Netflix stepped in and revived the series for a fourth and final season which means fans can find out if dark lightning did play a role in the mystery.

In reality, Dwyer said, dark lightning wouldn't be something most passengers would notice.

"If an aircraft were inside a thunderstorm and were directly struck by dark lightning, then there probably would be a very brief flash of diffuse bluish light around the aircraft," Dwyer said. "It is possible the aircraft would subsequently be struck by normal lightning, which would be the more memorable event."

While it has been over 25 years since its discovery, researchers to this day are still unsure if anyone has actually been hit by dark lightning.