Jellyfish light up the night sky for a split second? If you have, you're not imagining things.
You 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 over northwest Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Smith located 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 away to take pictures of lightning strikes – unless you're looking for flashes of heat lightning to illuminate distant thunderheads. But Smith did not have his camera trained on the storms – he was looking above them.
That's where sprites live. They are not born in the clouds. They charge 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. Sprites dance in the mesosphere – higher than where shooting stars and meteor burn up.
Another sprite lightning capture from 4/17/19 over Oklahoma. This was taken from Anadarko. Storm was north of Enid. A surreal experience with towering storms to my east, intermittently blocking out the moonlight. Still more images to work through #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/WUG9aOKXPh
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 19, 2019
And although it's difficult to tell from photos, sprites are very large. An ordinary lightning bolt is about an inch thick and several miles long (about 5 kilometers long).
Jellyfish sprites can be 30 miles (48 kilometers) across. Imagine 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, so he caught some column sprites.
Multiple column sprites line up at an angel sprite in my last sprite lightning capture from the night of 4/17/2019. An uncropped image on the 50mm about 20 minutes before being clouded over. Anadarko, Oklahoma. #okwx #APOD @JimCantore @emilyrsutton @MichaelSeger pic.twitter.com/gXNlPMKucZ
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 21, 2019
"I captured a number of sprites during 2018," Smith said in an email, "It's very challenging to have a full moon at my back."
Although sprites are poorly understood, atmospheric electrodynamicists 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 uses them to dispense charges. It's a quick process that takes less than a tenth of a second. That's what makes it tough for sprites. Blink and you'll miss them.
1989. For decades, the high-rise fleeting bursts of light above storm tops, akin to strobing pink fireworks.
But it was not until auroral physicist snapped at the University of Minnesota. The physicist, John R. Winckler, has been testing a low-light television camera that would be used to document an upcoming rocket 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, sparky thunderstorm. It does not need to be overexposed by taking long exposures. There may not be much light pollution, as that would be out of 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 off 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 big, sprawling clusters or squalls of thunderstorms are more favorable.
June is the peak month for these storms, as the mesoscale convective systems blast through the central and high plains. These complexes can put down 100,000 or more lightning bolts every night, shedding sprites by the dozen up above – if you know where to look.
You may get to see something incredible. Smith sure did.
"I got my first sprite in 2017," he said, "and have been obsessed ever since."
Last night I saw my first ever sprite with the naked eye, and this was it. Kansas with small expectations. It turned into one of the biggest sprite storms I've ever witnessed with 3 naked eye sightings. #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/7Fz5zzJViP
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 22, 2019
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