3.4 The Hundred Year Hunt for the Red Sprite

Monday, 8 January 2018: 2:45 PM
Room 2 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Walter A. Lyons, WeatherVideoHD.TV, Fort Collins, CO

The red sprite is one of a family of lightning-induced Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) that can appear in the stratosphere and mesosphere above thunderstorms. Though brief and dim, occurring just at the edge of human visual perception, ancient peoples likely did glimpse them, perhaps forming the basis of certain ancestral myths and rock art. Mentions of such phenomena in the scientific literature are eyewitness reports dating as far back as the 1880s. But it took an accidental capture on videotape, using an experimental low-light camera, by Prof John R. Winckler of the University of Minnesota on 7 July 1989, to confirm that these fleeting and phantasmagorical flashes were indeed real, hiding from science in plain sight. This discovery caused astonishment, with one atmospheric physicist commenting, “It was as strange as if biology had suddenly discovered a new human body part.”

The author was involved in sprite research almost from day one, and indeed made the first intentional video capture in a NASA-funded project in 1993. Soon thereafter followed the discovery of an entire menagerie of luminous phenomena above storms including elves, blue jets, trolls, gigantic jets, gnomes and pixies. Then began the long scientific endeavor to document these events, understand their physics and quantify their impacts. Were they a threat to spacecraft? Did they affect radio wave propagation and atmospheric chemistry? And what was their relationship to the lightning in the parent storms below? In this regard, the explorations lead to the appreciation that sprites and elves resulted from several classes of massive “superbolt” lightning discharges far more energetic than the “conventional” flashes of the textbooks.

We review the long history of the unfolding of a new chapter in atmospheric sciences, the organizations and scientists involved, and how the topic attracted widespread public and press interest. Moreover, the discovery of sprites provided an excellent vehicle to explain to the general public how science actually worked when confronted with something strange and unexpected in the night sky. Similarly, an opportunity to involve citizen scientists in a journey of discovery and documentation of these phenomena continues to this day.

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