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Nature & Wildlife
2013 September
Pg 10 - The Sunshine Express
red sprites, originate at the tops of storm clouds,
and shoot up to an altitude less than half that
of red sprites. Blue jets are narrower than red
sprites, and fan out like trumpet-shaped flowers
in blue or purple hues.
¡°This field of research is fast evolving, and is
important for understanding the global electric
circuit,¡± says Anne-Marie Schmoltner, program
director in NSF¡¯s Division of Atmospheric and
Geospace Sciences, which supports the research.
¡°The red sprite airborne field campaign this
summer provided observations at unprecedented
time resolutions.¡±
What makes thunderstorms¡¯ celestial lights?
Atmospheric researchers have developed theories
to try to explain these celestial lights.
Red sprites may happen at the time of positively
charged cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, which
make up about ten percent of all lightning and
are many times more powerful than more com-
mon, negatively charged lightning.
The flashes may be akin to giant electric sparks.
After a powerful ground strike, the electric field
above a thunderstorm may become strengthened
to the point that it causes an ¡°electrical break-
down,¡± an overload that weakens the atmo-
sphere¡¯s resistance to electric current flow. The
result is an immense red spark, or sprite, in the
atmosphere.
Although still something of a mystery, red sprites
have helped solve other long-standing questions.
Scientists have found that red sprites create some
of the low-frequency radio bursts picked up
for years by instruments around the world, but
whose source was unknown.
Large bursts of gamma rays, emanating from
Earth rather than space, originate during thun-
derstorms, although their exact relation-
ship to red sprites remains unclear.
Researchers now wonder whether red
sprites (and blue jets) might affect the
atmosphere in important ways.
For example, sprites and jets might alter
the chemical composition of the upper
atmosphere. Though brief, they could set
off lasting charges.
Sprites¡¯ deep red color is caused by the
light emitted from nitrogen molecules in
the atmosphere, says McHarg. Red sprites
may turn out to be important to atmo-
spheric chemistry and global climate by
changing concentrations of nitric oxides
high in the atmosphere.
The researchers are using a technique
called high-speed spectroscopy to study
sprites¡¯ different colors to determine the
amount of energy the sprites carry, and to
find out more about their chemical compo-
sition.
How to see a sprite
Can thunderstorm-watchers on the ground
glimpse red sprites and blue jets with the
naked eye? Yes, if they know where to look.
Viewers must be able to see a distant thun-
derstorm with no clouds in the way, in an
area without city lights. Then they must
look above the storm, not at the lightning
within the clouds.
It¡¯s likely, say the scientists, that if watchers wait
long enough, they¡¯ll see a red sprite. Blue jets are
more elusive. The best viewing would probably
come from a plane flying very high, and located
miles and miles away from a thunderstorm.
With its rubber tires, a car may be the safest
vehicle from which to hunt for these ephemeral
sprites of the thunderclouds.
(Cheryl Dybas, NSF 703.292.7734 cdybas@nsf.gov)
Is it a bird, a plane, a UFO? It¡¯s a... red sprite!
August 26, 2013: Strange lights in the sky are
being closely watched by atmospheric scientists.
Dubbed red sprites by researchers, these dancing
fairies-of-the-clouds are sometimes glimpsed as
blood-red bursts of light in the shape of jellyfish.
At other times, they appear as trumpet-shaped
blue emissions, called blue jets. Like the most
elusive of nymphs, however, red sprites and blue
jets come out on only one occasion: during severe
thunderstorms.
Although sporadically reported for years by
airline pilots, only in the past decade or two has
there been enough evidence to convince atmo-
spheric scientists to investigate the phenomenon.
What¡¯s that in the skies?
Now baffled researchers asking ¡°What in the
world is this?¡± may have found answers.
Above a thunderstorm¡¯s black clouds, sprites ap-
pear as bursts of red light flashing far into Earth¡¯s
atmosphere, according to scientist Hans Nielsen of
the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
The brief flashes look like glowing jellyfish, with
red bells and purple tentacles. In a single night,
a large thunderstorm system can emit up to one
hundred sprites.
Into the wild blue--or red--yonder
Nielsen, Jason Ahrns, also of the University of
Alaska at Fairbanks, Matthew McHarg of the U.S.
Air Force Academy and researchers from Fort
Lewis College teamed up this summer to study
sprites.
They used the National Science Foundation (NSF)/
National Center for Atmospheric Research Gulf-
stream-V aircraft, a high-flying plane capable of
reaching altitudes of 50,000 feet, to conduct their
What¡¯s That Up In The Skies?
research. Their project is funded by NSF.
Sprites are similar to lightning, say Nielsen
and McHarg, in that they are electrical dis-
charges from the atmosphere.
But while sprites mimic lightning ¡°in some
ways,¡± says McHarg, ¡°they¡¯re different in
others. Lightning happens below and within
clouds, at altitudes of two to five miles.
Sprites occur far above the clouds, at about
50 miles up, 10 times higher than lightning.
They¡¯re also huge,¡± he says, ¡°reaching 30
miles high.¡±
¡°Red sprites don¡¯t last very long, though,
about one-one thousandth of a second.
That¡¯s 300 times quicker than the time it
takes us to blink!¡±
Blue jets, which weren¡¯t directly part of the
scientists¡¯ study, stick around longer than
These strange lights in the sky are called
Red Sprites; they form high above
thunderstorms. [Image: Jason Ahrns]
Good Times In Naturita
Mark your calendars for the Montrose County
west end Sheriff¡¯s Posse ¡®West End Rally¡¯, happen-
ing this month on September 14, in the Naturita
Park, in Naturita.
Cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles, and more,. 9a-
6p, Free entry for cars and spectators.
Trophies will be given to each class and one to
the ¡®Best of Show¡¯ winner. there will also be a 50¡¯s
pin-up girl contest.
There is a $15 fee for vendors, $15 for poker run
hand 50/50, $2 square chicken drop, and a $5 a
bowl chili dinner cookoff.
All proceeds go towards the children¡¯s Christmas
fund. Come one come all. Bring the whole family
and have a great time.
Cortez Cultural Center Presents Ladies Night Out,
A walk on the wild side, Sep 21, 6p-9p, Fashion
show by Second Time Fashions, local vendors
that provide products or services for women,
door prizes, sweet treats, goodie bags, wine bar
and treasure hunt for Cortez Cash. Tickets may
be purchased in advance by calling the Center,
970.565.1151 or at the door on the night of the
event. Proceeds benefit the Patsy Brown Art Schol-
arship fund. Vendors may contact the Center for
applications and more information.
Come To The Fashion Show