June 21, 2019: Last night in Texas, a flurry of red sprites exploded from the top of a powerful thunderstorm. One of the the red forms was so tall and bright, people saw it 200 miles away in Oklahoma. “My boys and I saw it with our unaided eyes,” reports Paul Smith, who photographed the event from the shores of Lake Thunderbird, OK. This may be the first time that a sprite’s reflection has been captured in water:
Naked-eye sightings of sprites are rare, mainly because they are so fleeting. But this one left an impression. “My eleven-year-old son Thomas described it as a ‘huge orange-y-brown flash of lines high in the sky,'” says Smith. “My seven-year-old James just exclaimed ‘what the heck was that?'”
At first glance, Smith’s capture resembles a Gigantic Jet–that is, a type of “sprite on steroids.” But lightning expert Oscar van der Velde of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya thinks it may be something else:
“In early days of sprite research, they were called ‘palm trees’ by researchers from the University of Alaska,” van der Velde explains. “It is, basically, a bushy group of red sprites on top, with a secondary purple discharge hanging below. These types of events are quite rare. You need a big, active mesoscale convective system to produce them.”
Palm tree sprites are a topic of cutting edge research. “We haven’t even been able to confirm that they indeed originate from the thundercloud,” says van der Velde.
“Last night was so much fun,” adds Smith. “In addition to the sprites, my son Thomas photographed Jupiter and our Moon with the Nikon coolpix 80x zoom camera. We also saw a nice bolide exploding over the storms. The kid’s reactions were priceless.”