Sprites! Rare red lightning photographed on atmospheric research mission


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.

Related: Red sprites, blue jets, and elves: What are these mysterious, elusive phenomena?

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 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).

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)

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)

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

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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