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Vibrant Lightning Sprites Spark Above Hurricane Matthew

A photographer’s good eye captures an elusive phenomenon

One of the largest sprite bursts to ever be caught on camera flashes in the sky over Puerto Rico, October 1, 2016. ( Frankie Lucena via South West News Service)
smithsonian.com

As Hurricane Matthew sweeps across the Caribbean, all eyes are on the potentially devastating spiral of wind and rain that’s pushing across the skies. But one sharp-eyed photographer spotted something else above its mass of ominous clouds: sprites. 

As The Weather Channel reports, photographer Frankie Lucena spotted the red lightning sprites in Puerto Rico above Hurricane Matthew as it slowly barreled toward landfall. Lucena says he captured the red-colored flashes while the storm was near Aruba and Colombia. 

The phenomenon is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Though sprites have been spotted since at least the 1730s, their elusive nature earned them their mystical name. It took another two-and-a-half centuries for scientists to photograph the evasive phenomenon.

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist predicted their existence in 1925, but it took until 1989 for them to be confirmed when the flashes were accidently caught on video, Anne Casselman writes for National Geographic News. It wasn’t until 2007 when sprites were intentionally photographed at 10,000 frames per second. 

The reason sprites are so tricky to spot is because they are not what they seem. Though sprites look like red lightning, they’re not lightning at all—rather, they occur above thunderstorms. Like aurorae, sprites happen when charged particles interact with gases in the atmosphere, likely nitrogen. As ice particles high within thunderclouds bash against one another, an electrical charge builds. An opposite charge builds up on the ground, and eventually both charges connect, creating a spark of light—lightning. When the lightning strike has a positive charge, it can spark a sprite—a kind of electric field that shoots out from the top of the lightning strike—that flashes above the cloud. 

They’re also not easily spotted by the human eye. As Matt Heavner of the University of Alaska explains, bright lights make it nearly impossible for the eye’s retina to spot the flashes, and the bright clouds that can surround them also distract would-be sprite spotters. It’s even more difficult to catch these flashes in action because when you’re beneath the sprite-sprouting cloud, you can’t see the flash at all. You either need to be flying above the clouds or far away to get the perfect shot.

Sprites only last for a few milliseconds, which means that Lucena’s trigger finger is quick indeed. They’re also not common in hurricanes, writes SpaceWeather.com. That’s because storms need vertical winds to rub the ice crystals against one another and produce lightning. As Tony Phillips reports, again for SpaceWeather.com, hurricanes have mostly horizontal winds and produce little to no lightning. 

There’s still plenty to discover about sprites. As Smithsonian.com reported in 2013, it’s still unclear why sprites take on the shapes that they do and how they impact weather. A growing body of images of the finicky phenomena will undoubtedly help scientists figure out what’s going on—and make the rest of us ooh and aah in the meantime. 

Whether or not Hurricane Matthew has more sprites in store, it looks likely to cause severe damage as it bears down on Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and Mexico. A public advisory from NOAA notes that the slow-moving storm could produce up to 40 inches of rain in some areas along with storm surges and sustained winds of up to 140 miles per hour. And if Lucena’s photo is any indicator, people in Matthew’s path may have lightning to contend with in addition to all that rain. 

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