Credit: Currier & Ives
For everything we’ve known about lightning, from Zeus to Ben Franklin’s kites to Back to the Future, it’s still a bit of an enigma. The kind that occurs in Earth’s upper atmosphere, where we Earthly plebeians don’t spend very much time, is particularly mysterious — and that’s where the magic happens.
Where land meets sky in the mesosphere, the third layer from Earth’s surface, is so confounding, it’s even termed the “ignorosphere” because of how much less it’s studied than, say, the stratosphere beneath it. Here’s a few observable bursts of light we rarely get to see, vaguely named after mythical creatures so avoid the assumption that much is known about them:
This photograph was snapped by an astronaut aboard the ISS and shows a white flash of lightning amidst the yellow city lights of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Credit: NASA
Credit: Armagh Observatory
Sprites have popped up in anecdotes for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until 1989 that one was caught on ground-based film by accident. Without proof other than eyewitness accounts, the glows, which resemble auroras and occur way above thunderstorms, had been shafted into the same grumblings as UFO sightings. But now, the sprites were real, not just strange tales of the possibly paranormal.
Blue Jets and Red Sprites light up the clouds. Credit: Author/ESA
Fast forward five years and a red sprite is first caught on video taken from an aircraft. Soon, dozens more are seen. Sprites shaped like jellyfish can have bluish tendrils hanging from their base. Others are deemed carrots or columns. (The sprite glimmering above is a carrot.)
“The flashes look like the Fourth of July, like Roman candles with fountains,” one of the two professors who recorded the video said in a statement. And in a few thousandths of a second, after climbing to heights of up to 60 miles (or 95 kilometers), they’re gone.
These flashes of light were also finally captured in the early ‘90s, though they had been sightings before. Blue jets, also known as rocket lightning, come in many shapes, like beams, spritzes, cones or fans, and they can veer into looking a little green or purple, too. Born near the tops of storm clouds, the jets shoot upward faster than the speed of sound, but below light or radio waves. Like sprites, they’re on the lower end of frequencies we can see, which is why they’re so elusive to the human eye. These reach altitudes of up to 30 miles (about 50 km).
Upper atmospheric lightning and electrical discharge phenomena. Credit: Abestrobi
These fabled creatures are actually acronym for a mouthful. The full name: Emission of Light and Very Low-Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources. We’ll go with elves, which are disc-shaped and completely different from their proven predecessors. The first video was obtained in 1990, but five whole years passed before more elves were sighted. Alongside elves came trolls, gnomes, pixies, and gigantic jets — a turning point for a maturing, if not still otherworldly, field.