Sprite lightning is a mysterious phenomenon and by its very nature is extremely difficult to study but not one but two have been captured on film recently.
The flashes only occurs at very high altitudes above thunderstorms and last only for a fraction of a second.
And they're also red and a weird carrot-esque shape.
This was then surpassed in quality by this 10,000 frames per second super high-speed film of a burst over the skies of Boulder, Colorado.

The film was taken by astrophotographer, Jason Ahrns, who was on a plane specially equipped to hunt sprite lightning for the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Research Aircraft Facility.
Despite being nearly as old as the Earth itself, sprite lightning was only discovered by accident in 1989.
Research into sprite lightning is still relatively new and little is definitively known.
sprite lightning
Sprite lightning as seen from the International Space Station
It has been suggested they form as a result of positively charged lightning strikeshitting the ground and leaving a negatively charged thunder cloud in the sky.
This then creates the conditions for the sprite's charge to form.


Rare sprite lightning caught on camera

Footage captured by a US astrophotographer while flying over Colorado shows the phenomenon known as sprite lightning, which occurs above thunderstorms.

A US astrophotographer flying in a specially modified research aircraft above a storm in Colorado captured footage of the rare phenomenon known as sprite lightning.
Jason Ahrns was aboard a plane belonging to the National Center for Atmospheric Research when he took the images using special high speed film.
Sprite lightning is defined as large electrical discharges that occur above thunderstorms. Coloured red or blue, they last just a thousandth of a second, and came come in a variety of shapes, sometimes resembling jellyfish-like blobs and at other times carrots or columns.
The existence of sprite lightning was only confirmed in 1989 when scientists at the University of Minnesota filmed it occurring

Mr Ahrns is currently working on a joint project between the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the UAS Air Force Academy, and Fort Lewis College, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Click here to see more spectacular images taken by Jason Ahrns.


GlobalNews.ca (With more words from me):

Researcher captures elusive lightning sprites on camera

Jason Ahrns captured an elusive sprite over a thunderstorm.
Jason Ahrns captured an elusive sprite over a thunderstorm. Jason Ahrns
TORONTO – If you thought that sprites and elves were just mythical creatures of long ago, you’re wrong.
Though almost as elusive as their mythical namesakes, sprites and elves form high in the atmosphere above the tops of thunderclouds, sometimes reaching out into space. It is believed that they are associated specifically with lightning.
These bursts of red and blue light that flash for one-thousandth of a second and are often only visible in planes above storms, or even from the International Space Station (ISS).
Elves, huge red halos that are also as short-lived as sprites, are just as poorly understood as sprites. They are also caused by lightning.
These fleeting flashes of light have long fascinated scientists and many researchers have set out to better understand them.
Jason Ahrns, a graduate student from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is studying sprites. He managed to photograph several bright red sprites over Oklahoma City on Aug. 6.
Ahrns, whose is studying auroras, – the Northern Lights – became interested in sprites after getting involved with one of the researchers at the university.
“My own advisor was supportive of me ‘expanding my horizons’ so to speak… so here I am.”
 A sprite — top right — captured by Jason Ahrns using a DSLR camera. (Jason Ahrns)
A sprite — top right — captured by Jason Ahrns using a DSLR camera. (Jason Ahrns)
Ahrns is involved with a joint project between the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the United States Air Force, and Fort Lewis College. The study is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
The main goal is to capture high-speed spectra of the sprites. Once the sprites are captured on film – at incredible speeds – researchers will study the composition of the light.
“We’ve noticed…the colour seems to change as the sprite evolves, where it’s redder on the top, then turns bluer near the bottom. You can somewhat see that in my pictures but it’s very subtle,” said Ahrns.
Capturing the sprites is no easy task. A plane, which flies out from an airport near Boulder, CO., is specially equipped to photograph the sprites. High-speed cameras are mounted on the windows on aluminum racks, along with a swivel mount so the researchers can reposition the cameras. One of the windows was even replaced with a quartz window because quartz is considered to be purer.
“We fly about 200km off the side of the storm with the high-speed cameras running and wait to see a sprite in the ‘spotter’ camera,” Ahrns said. “When I see one, I hit the trigger and it gets recorded to high speed.”
In order to determine what the sprites are comprised of, the researchers must separate the different beams of light. They do this by using something called diffraction grating.
“We’ve got a diffraction grating in front of one of the high-speed cameras which will break the light apart into its components, like that old Pink Floyd album with the prism, so we can know exactly what’s in there, and moment by moment since it will be high-speed footage,” Ahrns said. “As far as I know, that’s never been done before. We’ve recorded some spectra already, but they’re not as good as we had hoped. Still a couple of flights left, though. You basically have to get lucky.”
The study also attempts to determine which specific stroke of lightning made the sprite.
This isn’t Ahrns’ first time researching sprites. In 2011, the Japanese television station NHK sponsored a TV special where the team had cameras in two different locations in order to map the sprite in 3D nature.
Asked if he will continue with the study of sprites, Ahrns said, “I see no reason to stop anytime soon. Of course, I have to devote most of my time to auroras, or I’ll never graduate. But whenever I have the time and opportunity to work with sprites, I’m there.”


Hunting the Elusive Red Lightning Above Oklahoma City

Hunting the Elusive Red Lightning Above Oklahoma City
Jason Ahrns / Flickr

As recently as 25 years ago, the world had no clue that huge showers of crimson sparks were erupting in the atmosphere high above thunderstorms. Called red sprites, this fleeting form of lightning appears only for a few milliseconds and is still the subject of much mystery and speculation.
Given their relative rarity and fleeting nature, a researcher hunting sprites (and their cousins,blue jets) can be like Ahab scouring the briny deep for that damnedable whale. When somebody does manage to get a photo of one, they're typically quick to nail it to the Internet's wall for all to admire. The latest image of a red sprite is a doozy: It was taken Tuesday night by Jason Ahrns, a 31-year-old grad student who is conducting night flights above Oklahoma City to study the elusive phenomenon. (Universe Today was the first outlet to the photo.) Ahrns also took this fantastic high-speed video, showing a cluster of sprites shooting off in frigid, high-altitude air. It's slowed down by about 666 times:
Ahrns typically researches the aurora borealis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; the great sprite chase is a side project he's working on with scientists from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Air Force and elsewhere. Ahrns is a busy guy, probably hopping aboard a Gulfstream jet at this moment, but he recently took the time to email a few details about what might be the coolest job on earth:
What are you and your team doing up there in the air? Hunting sprites, only?
We are hunting sprites for the purpose of studying their formation and propagation. We're doing this using high speed cameras, required due the the very short lifespan of a sprite (the whole thing is over in the few milliseconds). A typical camera running at TV speeds would only get the sprite in a single frame, and you can tell nothing about how it forms and evolves. So we use the high speed cameras which actually let us watch it evolve, as you saw in the video I posted.

A sprite explodes above Republic County, Oklahoma. Ahrns took this photo of the "red alien jellyfish" with an SLR camera pointed out an airplane's window. (Jason Ahrns / Flickr)
Why is it important to understand sprites?
The first reason, and one I totally agree with, is because they are there. And even more so, because they're really cool. But more practically, they represent an energy input into the middle atmosphere, and it's not clear how much of an impact they have on the weather or the longer-term climate. They should also affect the ozone layer, but to what degree? Theses are things we can't know until we know more about the sprites.
On another front, the long strands/tentacles/whatever you want to call them (we call them streamers) open a path for electric sparks to jump, and the same streamers occur with more mundane sparks, such as static electricity or lightning bolts. Streamers are also used in industrial applications for the production of ozone and gas and water-pollution cleaning, for example.
The size and speed of the streamers are related to the air density, so that they get larger and slower when the air is less dense. When we observe sprites in the high atmosphere, the air is very low density, so we see these same type of streamers, but much larger and slower (as fast as they still are!) than streamers on the ground. So our sprite research may provide insight into the basic physics of streamer discharges, which is important basically anywhere it's important to understand electric discharge, such as the ones mentioned above.

Three blue jets zip through the air above Republic County, Kansas. Ahrns likens them to "giant butane lighter flames shooting out of the top of clouds." (Jason Ahrns / Flickr)
What is the ideal conditions for a sprite to appear? Thunderstorms, obviously, but I believe you mentioned on your blog something about positive charges?
We want "positive" lightning strokes, which is just a type of stroke where the cloud has a buildup of positive charge and releases a bolt. Most lightning strokes are "'negative," where the cloud has a buildup of negative charge. The ratio of negative to positive is roughly 10 to 1, so it's not the most common type of lightning, but it's not that uncommon either. But more than a simple "positive" lightning stroke, we also want the stroke to have moved a lot of charge. So we look for a large, positive-charge moment change, which is basically the positive strokes weighted by how much charge was moved.
Any large thunderstorm will probably produce the conditions we're looking for, to a greater or lesser degree – and I don't think it's really well understood why some are to a greater or lesser degree. I don't understand it, anyway; maybe someone else does.
Is the sprite you captured on Tuesday something people in OKC could've possibly also seen?
It is possible to see sprites from the ground, but since they occur above the storm, you need to be out to the side with a clear view above, preferably on top of something tall. People with meteor cameras running at their homes do capture sprites sometimes, but they are generally low resolution because they're so far away and usually using a very wide angle lens. But yes, if you're in the right place and time, you can see them from the ground with your eyes; it's difficult but not at all impossible. I've never seen one personally, only in the cameras.

An astronaut snapped this image of a sprite from the International Space Station in April 2012. (NASA Johnson Space Center)


Sprites! Rare red lightning photographed on atmospheric research mission

Sprite photographed over Red Willow County, Nebraska (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
Sprite photographed over Red Willow County, Nebraska (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
Aboard the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Gulfstream V research aircraft, scientist Jason Ahrns has captured stunning images of the seldom seen, elusive sky phenomenon known as sprites.
These brilliant strands of red light surge outbound from the tops of clouds towards space when thunderstorms emit lightning.
“[Sprites] can reach 50-60 miles into space and penetrate downward into the middle of the stratosphere (15-20 miles high) with jellyfish-like tendrils,” CWG’s Don Lipman wrote in a post in 2012.
Lasting just milliseconds and rarely visible from the ground due to clouds in the way, precious few sprites have been observed.
Ahrns, a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and a crew of scientists have flown on several sprite-hunting missions from NCAR’s Research Aviation Flight Facility in Boulder.
NCAR Gulfstream atmospheric research aircraft  (photo by the author)
NCAR Gulfstream atmospheric research aircraft in a hangar at  its Research Aviation Flight Facility (Jason Samenow)
From the air, this team has had the unparalleled opportunity to get unobstructed views of any sprites shooting above the clouds. And they came equipped with special high speed cameras and conventional DSLRs in attempt to seize the fleeting phenomenon.
Ahrns struck gold last week, sharing the photograph below of a sprite over Oklahoma City, taken on his DSLR.
Sprite as viewed above Canadian County, Oklahoma on August 6 (Jason Arhns via Flickr).
Sprite as viewed above Canadian County, Oklahoma on August 6 (Jason Arhns via Flickr).
But Ahrns captured even more dramatic sprite photos and video over Nebraska Sunday night.
“We got 9 or 10 sprites on the high speed, two of which were concurrent with the dSLR,” Ahrns wrote on his blog.
Here’s one of the sprites Ahrns caught on his DSLR, which he calls a C-sprite, short for ‘Column sprite’ given its shape.
Sprite photographed over Red Willow County Nebraska August 12 (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
Sprite photographed over Red Willow County Nebraska August 12 (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
And here’s a video of a C-sprite, slowed down by a factor of about 500, captured at 10,000 frames per second:
Lastly, here’s a DSLR-produced image of another sprite “grouped in a ring called a crown” Ahrns said.
Sprite photographed over Red Willow County Nebraska August 12 (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
Sprite photographed over Red Willow County Nebraska August 12 (Jason Ahrns via Flickr)
More spectacular sprite images from the campaign may be in the pipeline.  Ahrns posted the following update on his blog early this morning:
As I write this, we’ve actually just finished flying another mission, our last of this campaign. But since it’s 5 in the morning and I have to meet in 6 hours to remove the cameras from the aircraft then drive 13 hours, I’m going to save that update for later – when I have time to go through the 11,000 pictures (seriously!) and look for good sprites. I will say that I finally saw a sprite naked-eye; two of them…
Ahrns’ research and photography are part of joint project of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the United States Air Force, and Fort Lewis College. The work is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
John Metcalfe at Atlantic Cities published a great interview with Ahrns, which explores the aims of the field campaign and research, here: Hunting the Elusive Red Lightning Above Oklahoma City


UAF Geophysical Institute:

Student's sprite images go viral

Publishing Information
Release Date: 

Sprites captured over Nebraska by J. AhrnsRecent sprite images captured by Jason Ahrns, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have gone viral. The doctoral candidate has taken part in a sprite imaging campaign over the Midwest from late July through August 13. However, due to Ahrn's captivating blog and Flickr site, media requests keep rolling in. 

Ahrns' sprite photos and video were covered by The Washington PostNational Public Radio and a myriad of news outlets in Alaska and the Midwest.

Sprite research is nothing new to the Geophysical Institute. Faculty and students here pioneered research on the phenomena back in the 1990s, under Dave SentmanDon Hampton, a research assistant professor at GI, dedicated some of his time as a student to sprite imaging work back then. Now, he's the advisor for Ahrns.

In a recent email, Hampton said, "It's is actually kind of fun that a new generation of researchers are working on them now."

Ahrns worked with Professor Emeritus of Geophysics and GI Associate Director Hans Nielsen and scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research on the recent campaign. 

PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Sprites pictured above Red Willow County in Nebraska, captured by J. Ahrns.

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Space Physics


Alaska Public Radio (with audio):

Rare 'Red Lightning' Garners National Attention

Credit Jason Ahrns, http://musubk.blogspot.com/
Sprites as photographed by Jason Ahrns.
Fairbanks, AK - A graduate student from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks has garnered national media attention after he posted photos of a rare lightning-related phenomenon to his blog.
Thunderstorms can produce dark grey clouds and blazing flashes of white lightning, but above all that, things are much more colorful.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, PhD student Jason Ahrns says pilots have reported bright red flashes of light above thunderstorms for decades. “Some people kind of dismissed those as people seeing things," he says, "because nobody had any real evidence.”
Until now.  
Ahrns is part of team of researchers who spent the summer flying over Oklahoma, Kansas and the Midwest aboard a National Center for Atmospheric Research aircraft.  They’re photographing sprites.  “They’re just this weird alien jellyfish looking shape,” says Ahrns.  But sprites are actually the result of positively charged lightning.  They usually appear bright red in photos, but they show off  hints of blue light. “It’s basically a glow," he says, "just like a fluorescent light bulb.  Where there’s a big electric potential in the atmosphere and it just makes the atoms up there glow.”  But spotting a sprite is the ultimate challenge.  They occur almost too quickly for the human eye to detect.  “They’re very fast and they’re over in a few milliseconds," explains Ahrns.  "So, if you blink at the wrong time, it’s gone, but they’re really large.  It really impressed me how large they are. We were flying like a hundred miles away from it and it’s still large enough to go from the top and bottom of my vision all the way.” 
Normal cameras aren’t fast enough to capture a sprite as it develops.  “So we use these high speed cameras so that we can watch the sprite develop over time, slow it down a lot and then we can actually see what’s going on.  The idea there is to see how these little streams coming off of it, how they propagate through the atmosphere, what they’re made of, what kind of atmosphere they’re exciting to cause this light and we can determine what causes sprites and what effect they might have on the rest of the atmosphere.”
Ahrns posted photos and video of sprites he captured this summer to his blog.  What happened next was unexpected.  He started getting calls and emails from theWashington Post, the Atlantic Cities Project and NPR’s breaking news blog, The Two-Way.  “I kind of figured it would make the rounds on science news sites," he says, "but I didn’t expect it to go mainstream and I didn’t expect this many people to be interested. I guess it just shows how much the general public is interested, if you can just get it out there to ‘em.”
The research team took more than 11 thousand photos during a single flight just this week. They’ll be evaluated along with thousands of others as part of a joint research effort between UAF, the US Air Force and the National Science Foundation.
To read more from Jason Ahrns and see more of his photos visithttp://musubk.blogspot.com/ or http://www.flickr.com/photos/musubk/



Sprites: A Rarely Seen Sky Phenomenon Caught On Camera

When thunderstorms emit lightning, we see the white, snaking electricity from the ground. But if you flew above the clouds, you would see a sky phenomenon known as sprites.
These are rarely seen bolts of red light that look like very fast burning sparklers. The Capital Weather Gang over at The Washington Post describes them like this:
"[Sprites] can reach 50-60 miles into space and penetrate downward into the middle of the stratosphere (15-20 miles high) with jellyfish-like tendrils."
What's more, they last only milliseconds. As you can imagine, that makes them terribly hard to capture, but scientist and University of Alaska, Fairbanks graduate student Jason Ahrns did just that when he photographed and videotaped the phenomenon from the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Gulfstream-V plane.
The results are stunning. Here's one image Ahrns took on Monday over Red Willow County, Neb.:
Sprites sparkle over Red Willow County, Neb., on Monday.
Sprites sparkle over Red Willow County, Neb., on Monday.
Jason Ahrns/via Flickr
And here's a video he took at 10,000 frames per second of the same sprites:
We asked Ahrns what surprised him about sprites after he finally got the chance to fly up and see them.
"I've seen sprites with my naked eye for the first time, and they're really tall! I've seen pictures and watched them in video monitors during the research campaigns, and in my mind I knew they were on the order of 50km from top to bottom, but knowing it and seeing it for yourself are two different things," he told us via email. "When we're flying 120 miles away from the storm and the sprite is still tall enough to fill my vision from top to bottom, that leaves an impression!"
Ahrns, by the way, keeps a blog about his exploits. It's well worth the read.

COLORFUL SPRITES OVER NEBRASKA: "August 12th was another successful night in our sprites campaign," reports Jason Ahrns of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With a team of researchers from NCAR, he has been flying over the midwestern USA onboard a Gulfstream V in search of exotic forms of lightning. As they were photographing a thunderstorm over Nebraska, these six sprites appeared:
Why were these sprites red on top and purple on the bottom? "I really can't explain it," says Ahrns. "That's one of the things we hope to address with this campaign by capturing high speed spectra."
Discovered in 1989 by scientists from the University of Minnesota who saw strange flashes coming out of the tops of thunderstorms, sprites remain a mystery today. Neither their basic physics nor their effect on the surrounding atmosphere is well understood. "Do sprites have a large scale impact on the middle atmosphere?" asks Ahrns. "Sprites clearly represent some kind of transfer of energy, but is it on a scale that has a significant effect on the weather and climate? We can't answer that without studying them."
The ephemeral nature of sprites (they typically last no more than a few milliseconds) makes them tricky to study. Researchers on the NCAR Gulfstream capture sprites using Phantom cameras running at 10,000 frames per second. "One of the Phantoms has a diffraction grating in front of it to capture high speed spectra, which I don't think has ever been done before," notes Ahrns.
The prettiest pictures, though, come from Arhns' own personal camera, a dSLR that he mounts in the window of the airplane to capture "beauty shots." The image above is an example. More may be found in Ahrns' personal blog.



Is it a bird, a plane, a UFO? It's a...red sprite
Strange lights in the sky studied by atmospheric scientists
A sky with red sprites
Red sprites, these strange lights in the sky are called; they form above thunderstorms.
Credit and Larger Version
August 26, 2013
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a UFO? Strange lights in the sky are being closely watched by atmospheric scientists.
Dubbed red sprites by researchers, these dancing fairies-of-the-clouds are sometimes glimpsed as blood-red bursts of light in the shape of jellyfish.
At other times, they appear as trumpet-shaped blue emissions, called blue jets. Like the most elusive of nymphs, however, red sprites and blue jets come out on only one occasion: during severe thunderstorms.
Although sporadically reported for years by airline pilots, only in the past decade or two has there been enough evidence to convince atmospheric scientists to investigate the phenomenon.
What's that in the skies?
Now baffled researchers asking "What in the world is this?" may have found answers.
Above a thunderstorm's black clouds, sprites appear as bursts of red light flashing far into Earth's atmosphere, according to scientist Hans Nielsen of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
The brief flashes look like glowing jellyfish, with red bells and purple tentacles. In a single night, a large thunderstorm system can emit up to one hundred sprites.
Into the wild blue--or red--yonder
Nielsen, Jason Ahrns, also of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Matthew McHarg of the U.S. Air Force Academy and researchers from Fort Lewis College teamed up this summer to study sprites.
They used the National Science Foundation (NSF)/National Center for Atmospheric Research Gulfstream-V aircraft, a high-flying plane capable of reaching altitudes of 50,000 feet, to conduct their research. Their project is funded by NSF.
Sprites are similar to lightning, say Nielsen and McHarg, in that they are electrical discharges from the atmosphere.
But while sprites mimic lightning "in some ways," says McHarg, "they're different in others. Lightning happens below and within clouds, at altitudes of two to five miles. Sprites occur far above the clouds, at about 50 miles up--10 times higher than lightning."
They're also huge, he says, reaching 30 miles high.
"Red sprites don't last very long, though, about one-one thousandth of a second. That's 300 times quicker than the time it takes us to blink!"
Blue jets, which weren't directly part of the scientists' study, stick around longer than red sprites, originate at the tops of storm clouds, and shoot up to an altitude less than half that of red sprites. Blue jets are narrower than red sprites, and fan out like trumpet-shaped flowers in blue or purple hues.
"This field of research is fast evolving, and is important for understanding the global electric circuit," says Anne-Marie Schmoltner, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which supports the research. "The red sprite airborne field campaign this summer provided observations at unprecedented time resolutions."
What makes thunderstorms' celestial lights
Atmospheric researchers have developed theories to try to explain these celestial lights.
Red sprites may happen at the time of positively charged cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, which make up about ten percent of all lightning and are many times more powerful than more common, negatively charged lightning.
The flashes may be akin to giant electric sparks.
After a powerful ground strike, the electric field above a thunderstorm may become strengthened to the point that it causes an "electrical breakdown," an overload that weakens the atmosphere's resistance to electric current flow. The result is an immense red spark, or sprite, in the atmosphere.
Although still something of a mystery, red sprites have helped solve other long-standing questions.
Scientists have found that red sprites create some of the low-frequency radio bursts picked up for years by instruments around the world, but whose source was unknown.
Large bursts of gamma rays, emanating from Earth rather than space, originate during thunderstorms, although their exact relationship to red sprites remains unclear.
Researchers now wonder whether red sprites (and blue jets) might affect the atmosphere in important ways.
For example, sprites and jets might alter the chemical composition of the upper atmosphere. Though brief, they could set off lasting charges.
Sprites' deep red color is caused by the light emitted from nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, says McHarg. Red sprites may turn out to be important to atmospheric chemistry and global climate by changing concentrations of nitric oxides high in the atmosphere.
The researchers are using a technique called high-speed spectroscopy to study sprites' different colors to determine the amount of energy the sprites carry, and to find out more about their chemical composition.
How to see a sprite
Can thunderstorm-watchers on the ground glimpse red sprites and blue jets with the naked eye? Yes, if they know where to look.
Viewers must be able to see a distant thunderstorm with no clouds in the way, in an area without city lights. Then they must look above the storm, not at the lightning within the clouds.
It's likely, say the scientists, that if watchers wait long enough, they'll see a red sprite. Blue jets are more elusive. The best viewing would probably come from a plane flying very high, and located miles and miles away from a thunderstorm.
With its rubber tires, a car may be the safest vehicle from which to hunt for ephemeral sprites of the thunderclouds.
-- Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov
InvestigatorsHans Nielsen 
Related Institutions/OrganizationsUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks Campus
Total Grants$225,880


Scientists share images of little-known lightning storms called 'sprites'
As lightning zigzagged across the night sky in southeast Nebraska earlier this month, researchers in a jet some 200 miles away raced back and forth, filming an otherworldly show above the thunderheads.
Massive fields of reddish-purple lightning, rarely visible to people, convulsed across the sky. From the August flight has emerged images of the “sprites,” as the lightning is called, and those pictures have ignited the imagination as they circulate across the blogosphere.
The lightning is rarely seen because of its faintness, color and brevity. Cloud cover is another reason that sprites are hard to see.
Sprites last a few thousandths of a second and are at the end of the color spectrum that is hardest for the human eye to detect. If sprites were more distinct, they'd easily be visible above nighttime storms on the horizon or to more pilots flying above clouds. After all, sprites can be huge — sometimes 45 miles tall and 30 miles wide.
More information about sprites
What are sprites? Gigantic fields of reddish-purple lightning that occur above the most intense storms. They’re part of a family of exotic types of lightning discovered in the past 24 years.
How are they studied?Reviewing, in slow motion, video that captures images at 10,000 frames a second; and monitoring radio waves for a signature signal.
Instead, sprites have been mostly the stuff of lore — bright lights seen out the corner of a person's eye or observed by the occasional pilot who had no way of backing up the claim.
Even from a research plane high in the sky, sprites can be difficult to see. Such was the case when doctoral student Jason Ahrns captured his photos above Nebraska at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 12.
What Ahrns saw with his human eye was different from what the camera captured.
“They look gray, very tall, and they flash in and out unbelievably quickly,” he said. “Even knowing what a sprite is, and that we were flying next to a sprite storm, I still wasn't sure if I was just seeing things until I checked the camera.”
Ahrns saw gray because the sprite was too faint to activate the color receptors in his eyes, he said. His camera, a Nikon D7000, captured the truer color — red.
When he posted his pictures online, they began circulating on blogs, including on news sites for NPR and the Washington Post.
That pictures of this elusive lightning would be captured above Nebraska is not surprising — the Great Plains are a storm-rich part of the planet that lends itself to research. Researchers come to hunt tornadoes and other elements of powerful storms in Nebraska and surrounding states. The skies above the Cornhusker State have yielded images of sprites since research began in the early 1990s.
Several dozen universities are studying sprites, including the University of Florida and Stanford and Duke Universities. In general, researchers believe that sprites are a link in the Earth's electrical circuit, itself a little-understood process.
Duke scientist Steven Cummer said understanding the effect of sprites on the atmosphere is important, as is knowing whether there is a connection between sprites and climate. For example, what if sprites contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer? And as climate change intensifies severe weather, will sprites become more common?
This month's expedition was funded by the National Science Foundation and brought together scientists from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, U.S. Air Force Academy and Fort Lewis College, Ahrns said. The mission was flown on a Gulfstream V jet operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research Earth Observing Laboratory.
James Moore, of the Earth Observing Laboratory, oversaw the forecasting to find storms that would produce sprites. He said the mission captured sprites about a half-dozen times over three weeks.
Sprites occur with only the most intense lightning storms, about 10 percent of the time.
Don MacGorman, a physicist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, said that as technology advances, more is being learned about sprites. When sprites were first discovered in 1989, scientists didn't even know that sprites were lightning.
“This shows how little we know about the atmosphere,” MacGorman said. “How many things are out there that are unsuspected, that are hiding somewhere that we haven't seen before or can't bring our instruments to measure?”

More Amazing High Speed Images and Video of Sprite Lightning

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Red sprite lightning seen over Nebraska on August 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Red sprite lightning seen over Nebraska on August 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
When we first checked in with graduate student and astrophotographer Jason Ahrns earlier this month, he had the chance to be part of an observing campaign to try and photograph red sprite lightning from the air. Using a special airplane from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Aircraft Facility in Boulder, Colorado, Jason was part of a team that used high-speed video cameras and digital still cameras to learn more about this mysterious lightning. They flew over the central part of the US, such as over Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
Named for the mythological sprites, which were known for being elusive, this lightning flashes quickly at high altitudes of 65-75 km (40-45 miles), but often as high as 90 km (55 miles) into the atmosphere. They are difficult to see from the ground, thus this airborne observing campaign.
Here are more images and video (some at 10,000 frames per second!) taken by Jason and his team:
Red sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska, US as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Red sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska, US as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Jason said on his blog, documenting the observing campaign, that “Most of what we saw were C-sprites, short for ‘Column sprites’ or ‘Columnar sprites’ – it just refers to their shape as tall, single columns.”
Sprites appear as luminous reddish-orange flashes, and sometimes look like jellyfish with “legs” that reach down into the clouds. Besides the columnar shapes, they also can be shaped like carrots and crowns, but why they take different shapes is unknown. They are thought to be triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground. They were discovered by accident in 1989 when a researcher studying stars was calibrating a camera pointed at the distant atmosphere where sprites occur.
Sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska in the US. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska in the US. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Above is an image, and below is the video of the same sprite slowed down by about 500 times:
See more information and images/videos on Jason’s Flickr page and his website.

Rare sprite lightning discharge caught on camera

By  | Geekquinox – 21 hours ago
I'm not talking about the mythological creatureor the soft drink, now. I'm referring to rare flashes of lightning that happen high above storm clouds.
The normal kind of lightning that we see is usually inside storm clouds or between the clouds and the ground. Just like we talk about positive and negative charge when dealing with electricity, a lightning bolt can be positive or negative. When a rare positive lightning bolt arcs between the cloud and the ground, this discharge also sets off a sprite above the cloud.
Sprites happen so rarely and so quickly that they're very hard to capture, but Jason Ahrns, while flying on a plane was able to snap a picture of a sprite above storms in Colorado. He even captured video which shows the incredible detail of the jellyfish like tendrils of lightning as they cascade down.
The video is in black and white, but the photograph at the top of the article shows the true colour. This red colour is thought to come from nitrogen, which glows red when its electrically energized.


Unusual atmospheric electrical discharges seen over Oklahoma

Posted: Aug 8, 2013 8:31 AM by Stephen Bowers 
Updated: Aug 8, 2013 8:42 AM





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Unusual electrical discharges were seen from thunderstorms over Oklahoma City Tuesday. They weren't lightning. They were actually phenomena known as sprites and jets.
Sprites, which are often red in color, actually shoot straight up from the top of a thunderstorm. Jason Ahrns, a graduate student from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, mostly studies auroras, but became involved with studying sprites on the side.
Spaceweather.com says Ahrns was flying on a research aircraft operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research out of Boulder. Ahrns says scientists studying the sprites usually try to to view them from the side of a thunderstorm. The ideal distance, he says, is about 200 kilometers away. He films sprites using Phantom cameras running at 10,000 frames per second.
Spaceweather.com also says that Ahrns has even managed to record sprites over lightning mapping programs, which could help researchers understand which types of lightning cause sprites to form over thunderstorms.


Massive Electrical Discharges Above T-Storms Captured With Incredibly High Speed Imaging! You Have To See This!

This image alone can grab your interest! This photo was taken by Jason Ahrns in Oklahoma City two nights ago. What makes the photo so interesting is the odd red flash on the top of the image. It almost looks like something from space!

Facebook pic 2

So what in the world are we looking at? This is called a sprite! Everyone knows what lightning is, but not everyone understands what a "sprite" is... and I am not referring to the soda. :) Sometimes when lightning strikes, it can cause an electrical emission that fires upward in the atmosphere to around 50 miles! These electric discharges upward in the atmosphere called "sprites" are nearly impossible to see from the ground, especially in our area. However, to our west in the Rockies, many can actually see these electrical discharges into the upper atmosphere. Here is a picture of some sprites from taken in Oklahoma storms a few years ago.


Probably the most difficult part about studying sprites is that they don't last long. In fact, mostsprites only last about 50 milliseconds. Since sprites are so quick, many scientists thought they were not real but simply observed by people with overactive imaginations ... until they were confirmed in 1989 by the space shuttle. There have been a number of studies, but the 2000 study was most definitive in proving they form from very strong, intense lightning strikes. These very intense lightning strikes can create electric fields above storms resulting in that massive discharges that can extend 50 miles above a storm! Now that you know what they are it is time to see them with your own eyes!

What makes the picture Jason Ahrns so cool is the associated video he shot with it. He used a camera that shoots 10,000 frames per second to capture an amazing video of this rare phenomena. Notice the explosive nature of these sprites!

Here is another video shot with 10 times less resolution, but still amazing at 1,000 frames per second. WOW!

We have even capture a sprite from the International Space Station as it flew over storms in Asia recently. The sprite occurs at 6 seconds in this video.

Not something you see every day? It is wild as we learn more and more about our atmosphere. Obviously we have difficultly sampling what goes on above t-storms, especially at this height. Regardless this is a topic we continue to study and learn more about.