The Mysterious Flashes Above the Storms

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  • Post last modified:March 2, 2024
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Have you ever seen a flash of red light above a thunderstorm? If you have, you might have witnessed a rare and fascinating phenomenon called red sprite lightning. Red sprites are huge electrical discharges that occur in the upper atmosphere, far above the clouds. They are usually triggered by powerful positive lightning bolts that strike the ground. Red sprites are very elusive and hard to capture, but they are also very beautiful and intriguing. In this blog post, we will explore what red sprites are, how they form, and how to photograph them. 📸⚡

What are red sprites?

Red sprites are a type of transient luminous event (TLE), which are short-lived optical phenomena that occur in the mesosphere, the layer of the atmosphere between 50 and 80 km (31 and 50 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Red sprites are also known as upper-atmospheric lightning, but they are not related to the ordinary lightning that we see in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where weather happens. Red sprites are cold plasma discharges, meaning they do not have the high temperatures and currents of normal lightning. They are more like fluorescent tube lights than electric sparks. ¹

Image: Look over the top of thunderstorms to see sprites and other flashes. NASA.

Red sprites appear as bright red-orange flashes that last for a few milliseconds. They often have a jellyfish-like shape, with a round head and long tendrils that extend downward. Sometimes, they are accompanied by blue jets, which are cone-shaped blue discharges that shoot upward from the top of the thunderclouds. Red sprites can be as large as 50 km (31 miles) across and 30 km (19 miles) high, making them one of the largest natural phenomena on Earth. ²

Image: Red Sprites (column sprites)over the English Channel, 2017. APOD/NASA.

How do red sprites form?

Red sprites are usually caused by positive cloud-to-ground lightning, which is a rare but intense type of lightning that carries a positive charge from the cloud to the ground. Positive lightning makes up less than 5% of all lightning, but it can be up to 10 times stronger than negative lightning, which carries a negative charge from the cloud to the ground. Positive lightning can release up to 300,000 amperes of current and 1 billion volts of potential difference. ³

When a positive lightning bolt strikes the ground, it creates a large imbalance of electric charge between the cloud and the upper atmosphere. To restore the balance, a red sprite is generated above the cloud, transferring a negative charge from the mesosphere to the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere above the mesosphere that is ionized by solar radiation. The red sprite is essentially a giant spark that neutralizes the excess positive charge left by the positive lightning. ⁴

Red sprites are very difficult to observe because they are very brief, very faint, and very high. They are usually hidden by the clouds from below, and they are only visible at night from a distance of tens to hundreds of kilometers. They are also unpredictable and random, occurring only in some thunderstorms and not in others. Scientists estimate that there are about 1 to 10 red sprites per minute worldwide, but only a fraction of them are detected and recorded.

Red sprites above the Atacama Desert, Chile. This image was taken by the European Space Observatory (ESA) 3.6-meter telescope in 2019. (Image credit: Zdeněk Bardon (bardon.cz)/ESO)

How to photograph red sprites?

To photograph red sprites, you need a lot of patience, luck, and equipment. Here are some tips to help you capture these elusive flashes:

– Find a location that has a clear and dark view of the horizon, away from any light pollution. You also need to be far enough from the thunderstorm to see above the clouds, but not too far to lose the details of the sprites. A distance of 100 to 300 km (62 to 186 miles) is ideal.
– Use a camera that has a fast shutter speed, a high ISO, and a manual mode. You also need a tripod, a remote shutter release, and a wide-angle lens. A DSLR or a mirrorless camera is recommended, but some compact cameras or smartphones may also work.
– Set your camera to manual mode and adjust the settings according to the conditions. A typical setting is a shutter speed of 1 to 5 seconds, an aperture of f/2.8 to f/4, and an ISO of 800 to 3200. You may need to experiment with different settings to find the best ones for your situation.
– Aim your camera at the area where you expect the sprites to occur, usually above the most active part of the thunderstorm. You can use a compass or a map to help you locate the storm. You can also use a lightning detector or a radio to monitor the lightning activity.
– Start taking continuous shots or use a time-lapse mode. You can also use a remote shutter release or an intervalometer to automate the process. You may need to take hundreds or thousands of shots to capture a single sprite, so be prepared to spend a lot of time and memory space.
– Review your shots and look for any red flashes above the clouds. You may need to zoom in and enhance the brightness and contrast to see them clearly. You can also use a software like Photoshop or Lightroom to edit and improve your images.

Red sprites are a fascinating and beautiful phenomenon that reveal the complexity and diversity of nature. They are also a challenge and a reward for photographers who seek to capture the rare and the extraordinary. If you ever have the opportunity to see or photograph a red sprite, don’t miss it. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 📸⚡

I hope you enjoyed this blog post about red sprite lightning. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. And if you have any photos or stories of red sprites, please share them with us. We would love to see them. Thank you for reading! 😊

¹: [Sprite (lightning) – Wikipedia](^1^)
²: [What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them – EarthSky](^2^)
³: [What Is A Red Sprite? | Popular Science](^4^)
⁴: [Red Lightning: Science behind the weather phenomenon | Space](^3^)
: [What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them – EarthSky](^2^)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)
: [How to Photograph Red Sprites – Storm Highway](https://stormhighway.com/sprites.php)

Source: Conversation with Bing, 2024-03-01
(1) Sprite (lightning) – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprite_%28lightning%29.
(2) What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them – EarthSky. https://earthsky.org/earth/definition-what-are-lightning-sprites/.
(3) Red Lightning: Science behind the weather phenomenon | Space. https://www.space.com/red-lightning.
(4) What Is A Red Sprite? | Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/what-red-sprite/.
(5) Sprite (lightning) – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprite_%28lightning%29.
(6) What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them – EarthSky. https://earthsky.org/earth/definition-what-are-lightning-sprites/.
(7) What Is A Red Sprite? | Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/what-red-sprite/.
(8) Red Lightning: Science behind the weather phenomenon | Space. https://www.space.com/red-lightning.
(9) What are lightning sprites? How to photograph them – EarthSky. https://earthsky.org/earth/definition-what-are-lightning-sprites/.

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