April 30, 2019: Have you ever seen a sprite? Some say it’s impossible. The strange and fleeting forms of red lightning materialize above thunderheads, then disappear again in less time than it takes to blink. Yet this week veteran sprite chaser Paul Smith says he did see them: “I’ve watched a number with my bare eyes over the last two big storms in Kansas.”
Above: Naked-eye sprites over Kansas on April 28th. Credit: Paul Smith.
“It has been an amazing experience that, quite honestly, has left me somewhat emotional,” says Smith. “I am now convinced that before the days of light pollution, these were observed more often than we know.”
Sprites are an exotic form of electricity that leap up from storm clouds instead of down like ordinary lightning. Although sprites have been reported for at least a century, many scientists did not believe they existed until after 1989 when sprites were accidentally photographed by researchers from the University of Minnesota and confirmed by video cameras onboard the space shuttle.
Smith has been chasing and photographing sprites for years in the stormy Great Plains around Oklahoma and Kansas. “This is the first time I have seen them with my unaided eyes,” he says. “I believe that these were unusually bright.” Here are two examples of clusters he caught simultaneously with his eyes and camera.
His eyes registered fewer details than his camera–but he still saw plenty. “The jellyfish shapes I saw had a fiery orange/red color,” he adds. “I didn’t see the bottoms of the tendrils, but I had an impression of the heads and beads. Storm chasers to the west of me were also viewing with their naked eyes.”
The underlying physics of sprites is still not fully understood. Some models hold that cosmic rays help them get started by creating conductive paths in the atmosphere. If cosmic rays do indeed spark sprites, now is a good time to look for them because cosmic rays are nearing a Space Age high.
More examples of naked-eye sprites may be found on Smith’s Facebook page.