May 25, 2018: Last night, a swarm of luminous jellyfish appeared over Oklahoma. “A swarm of jellyfish sprites, that is,” says Paul Smith, who photographed them rising above an intense thunderstorm near Oklahoma City:
“The sprites were about 80 miles away from me,” says Smith. “At that distance I could see over the tops of the storm cells where the jellyfish appear. I’ve photographed many sprites from 200 to 300 miles away. These, however, were unusually nearby, and they are my best pictures yet.”
Sprites are an exotic form of upward directed lightning. Although the forms have been seen for at least a century, many scientists did not believe they existed until after 1989 when sprites were photographed by cameras onboard the space shuttle. Now “sprite chasers” like Smith routinely photograph them from their own homes.
“I have been recording sprites since last summer when I accidentally caught a few during the Perseid meteor shower,” says Smith. “I have a couple of hundred events on camera now and I am out almost every night there are storms in my vicinity. This month I have driven for five hours some nights trying to find a clear view over active cells.”
The blue pushpin is Smith’s location; the arrow points to the sprites he saw on May 24, 2018.
Oklahoma is the epicenter of a region that we call “Sprite Alley”–a corridor stretching across the US Great Plains where intense thunderstorms produce lots of upward directed lightning. Already this year we have received reports of sprites and their stronger cousins, Gigantic Jets, from Texas to Nebraska. And summer thunderstorm season isn’t even fully underway yet.
Some researchers think that sprites may be linked to cosmic rays: Subatomic particles from deep space strike the top of Earth’s atmosphere, producing secondary electrons that trigger the upward bolts. If this is true, then sprites could multiply in the months and years ahead as cosmic rays intensify due to the decline of the solar cycle. More sprite images may be found on Paul Smith’s Facebook page.