Have you ever seen a giant red jellyfish illuminating the night sky for a fraction of a second? If you have, you can not imagine anything.
You have just seen a lightning electrical discharge in the atmosphere known as Sprite.
Paul Smith conquered the elusive phenomenon of Wednesday night, when storms raged across Northwest Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Smith positioned 100 km southeast of the storms in the city of Anadarko, a small community west of Oklahoma City with nearly 7,000 inhabitants.
Usually that's too far to take pictures of lightning strikes – unless you're looking for flashlights to illuminate distant storm heads. But Smith had not prepared his camera for the storms ̵
Sprites live here. They were not born in the clouds. They distribute charges well above them about 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 kilometers) in the sky.
Commercial jetliners fly at altitudes of six to seven miles. Sprites dance in the mesosphere – higher than where shooting stars and meteorites burn.
Another sprite flash from 17.04.19 over Oklahoma. This was taken over by Anadarko. The storm was north of Enid. A surreal experience with huge storms in my east, temporarily blocking the moonlight. More pictures to work through #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/WUG9aOKXPh
– Paul Smith (@paulsmi45427335) April 19, 2019
And although it's difficult to say of photos, sprites are very big. An ordinary flash is about 1 cm thick and several kilometers long.
Jellyfish sprites can be up to 48 kilometers long. Imagine an electrical discharge that spans the distance from Baltimore to Washington, DC. Other sprites can be slightly smaller, such as column sprites and carrot sprites.
The photos that Smith took seem to be from the jellyfish. Later in the evening, he also caught some column sprites.
In my last sprite speed camera from the night of April 17, 2014, several column sprites set themselves up over an angel sprite. An uncut picture on the 50 mm about 20 minutes before the clouds. Anadarko, Oklahoma. #okwx #APOD @JimCantore @emilyrsutton @MichaelSeger pic.twitter.com/gXNlPMKucZ  – Paul Smith (@PaulSajo), 2019
"I caught a bunch of sprites in 2018," Smith said in an email, "but this last outing was one of my favorites – it was a big challenge with a nearly full moon in the back." [19659002Althoughithasnotbeenunderstoodsofaratmosphericelectrodynamicshavefoundthebasisoftheirformation
Sprites are often triggered by a strong, positive flash with a common lightning near the ground. It is believed that this is a balancing mechanism that allows the atmosphere to distribute charges vertically. It's a fast process that takes less than a tenth of a second. This makes the hunt for sprites so hard. Blink and you will miss her.
Sprites were unknown until 1989. For decades, pilots had reported that they had seen huge, fleeting light surges over storm tips that resembled pink fireworks.
But that was not until a polar physicist at the University of Minnesota photographed a photograph of one from whom scientists could confirm their existence. Physicist John R. Winckler had tested a weak television camera to document an upcoming rocket launch, and he accidentally photographed the sprite.
Sprites images are routinely recorded worldwide today. With the right conditions, you can even try it from your backyard!
Sprites are not very rare – they are elusive. You need an unobstructed view of a distant, funky thunderstorm. It must be so dark that your camera is not overexposed at long exposure times. There can not be much light pollution as this would spit out an attempt to catch a sprite. And of course you need strong storms. So the best chances to catch a sprite are over the Great Plains in the spring.
Sprites derive strong electrical disturbances near the surface. The more intense and intense the lightning is at ground level, the higher the likelihood of seeing a sprite. For this reason, large, extended clusters or thunderstorms are cheaper incentives for sprite activity than isolated storm cells.
June is the peak month for this type of storm as large mesoscale convective systems flow through the central and high levels. These complexes can drop 100,000 or more flashes every night and throw sprites around a dozen – if you know where to look.
Next time you enjoy a cool evening drink and rage far-flung storms, look up. You can see something incredible. Smith did it for sure.
"I got my first sprite in 2017," he said, "and has been obsessed ever since."
Last night I saw my first sprite with the naked eye and that was it. I flew with little expectations about storms in the center of Kansas. It became one of the biggest sprite storms I've ever experienced with 3 sightings with the naked eye. #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/7Fz5zzJViP
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 22, 2019
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