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Eerie Photos Capture Glowing Red 'Sprite' Lighting Up The Sky in Oklahoma



Have you ever seen a giant red jellyfish light up the night sky for a split second?

You have just witnessed a lightning-like electrical discharge high in the atmosphere known as a sprite

Paul Smith captured the elusive phenomenon Wednesday night as storms raged across Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Smith placed himself 100 miles (about 160 kilometers) southeast of the storms in the town of Anadarko, a small community west of Oklahoma City with a population of just under 7,000

Ordinarily, that's too far to take pictures of lightning strikes – unless you're looking for flashes of lightning to illuminate distant thunderheads. But Smith did not have his camera trained on the storms ̵

1; he was looking over them

That's where sprites live. They are not born in the clouds. They distribute charges well above them about 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 kilometers) up in the sky.

Commercial jetliners fly at a height of six to seven miles altitude. Sprite dance in the mesosphere – higher than where shooting stars and meteors burn up.

to tell from photos, sprites are very large. An ordinary lightning bolt is about an inch thick and several miles (about 5 kilometers) long.

Jellyfish sprites can be 30 miles (48 kilometers) across. Figure one electrical discharge spanning the distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Other sprites can be a bit smaller, such as column sprites and carrot sprites.

The photos Smith appeared to be of the jellyfish variety. Later that evening, he also caught some column sprites.

"I captured a number of sprites during 2018," Smith said in an email, "but this last outing has been one of my favorites. ] Although sprites are poorly understood, atmospheric electrodynamics have figured out the basics behind their formation

Sprites are often triggered by a strong, positive bolt of ordinary lightning near the ground. They're thought to be a balancing mechanism that the atmosphere uses to dispense charges vertically. It's a quick process that takes less than a tenth of a second. That's what makes hunting for sprites so tough. Blink and you will miss them.

Sprites were not known until about 1989. For decades, pilots had reported seeing enormous fleeting bursts of light above storm tops, like strobing pink fireworks

But it was not until an auroral physicist at the University of Minnesota snapped a photo of one that scientists were able to confirm their existence. The physicist, John R. Winckler, had been testing a low-light television camera that would be used to document an upcoming racket launch, and he photographed the sprite accidentally.

Nowadays, pictures of sprites are routinely captured worldwide. With the right set of conditions, you could even try it from your backyard

Sprites are not terribly rare – they're just elusive. You need an unobstructed view of a distant, sparkling thunderstorm. It needs to be dark enough that your camera will not be overexposed by taking long exposures. There can not be much light pollution, as it would wash out an attempt to snag a sprite. And of course, you need strong storms. So the best odds of catching a sprite are over the Great Plains during spring

Sprites feed off of strong electrical disturbances near the surface. So, the more frequent and intense the lightning at ground level, the better the odds of seeing a sprite. That's why large, sprawling clusters or thunderstorms are more favorable instigators of sprite activity than isolated storm cells.

June is the peak month for these kinds of storms, as large mesoscale convective systems blow through Central and High Plains. These complexes can put down 100,000 or more lightning bolts every night, shedding sprites by the dozen upstairs – if you know where to look

So next time you're enjoying a cool evening beverage watching long-distance storms rage, look up. You may get to see something incredible.

"I got my first sprite in 2017," he said, "and have been obsessed ever since."


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