A Gigantic Jet with Fireballs

Sept. 24, 2021: Lightning on Earth is getting weirder and weirder. On the evening of Sept. 20th, Puerto Rican photographer Frankie Lucena pointed his Sony A7s camera at an offshore electrical storm. This is what he saw:

“This Gigantic Jet plasma event occurred over a very powerful thunderstorm near the Virgin Islands just ahead of Tropical Storm Peter,” says Lucena.  “I can’t believe I was able to capture such amazing details.”

Indeed, this is one of the best-ever photos of a Gigantic Jet. Sometimes called “Earth’s tallest lightning,” because they reach the ionosphere more than 50 miles high, the towering forms were discovered near Taiwan and Puerto Rico in 2001-2002. Since then, only dozens of Gigantic Jets have been photographed. They seem to love storms over water and are famous for surprising passengers onboard commercial aircraft. 

In 2017 and 2018, lightning researcher Oscar van der Velde of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya set up high speed cameras on the northern coast of Colombia in a dedicated campaign to capture Gigantic Jets. In three months of observing time he managed to capture only 12. That’s how elusive they are.

Above: The red arrow points from Lucena’s camera to the offshore electrical storm.

“Frankie has photographed a rare Gigantic Jet with ‘carrot’ morphology, first reported by Su et al (2003),” notes van der Velde. “The other, more common type of jet has a ‘tree’ morphology.” Here is a comparison: trees vs. carrots.

“Carrot jets” are remarkable for their internal beads–that is, bright balls of light hundreds of meters wide. Lucena caught dozens of them illuminating the jet’s midsection. They might be places where streamers inside the jet are intersecting, or regions of enhanced heating.

“We don’t know,” says van der Velde. “Gigantic Jets are not easily placed in front of a spectrograph.”

Meanwhile, Lucena is still marveling at what happened. “This is the brightest Gigantic Jet I have ever seen. It was truly remarkable.”

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