Have you ever seen a giant red jellyfish lit up in the night sky for a shared second? If you do, you do not think about things.
You've just seen a flashless electric discharge high in the atmosphere called a sprite.
Paul Smith captured the confusing phenomenon Wednesday night as storms raged across northwest Oklahoma and Panhandle. Smith was 100 miles southeast of the storms in the city of Anadarko, a small community west of Oklahoma City with a population of just under 7,000.
Usually, it is too far away to take lightning pictures – if you're not looking for lightnings heat the flash to illuminate remote thunderstorms. But Smith didn't have his camera trained on the storm ̵
That's where sprites live. They are not born in the clouds. They distribute charges far above them about 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 kilometers) in the sky.
Commercial jetliners are flying at a height of six to seven miles in height. Sprites dance in the mesosphere – higher than where shooting stars and meteors burn up.
Another sprite flash catch from 4/17/19 over Oklahoma. This was taken from Anadarko. Storm was north of Enid. A surreal experience with high storms in my east, which intermittently blocks the moonlight. Even more pictures to work through #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/WUG9aOKXPh
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 19, 2019
And even if it is hard to tell from pictures, sprites are very large. A regular lightning bolt is about one inch thick and several miles (about 5 miles) long.
Jellyfish sprites can be 30 miles (48 kilometers) over. Imagine an electric discharge ranging from the distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Other sprites can be a little smaller, such as column sprits and carrot prites.
The pictures Smith proved to be of the jellyfish. Later that evening, he also captured some column prizes.
Several column primers match an angel's prize in my last spiral light catch from the night of 4/17/2019. An unbroken image of 50mm about 20 minutes before it is flooded. Anadarko, Oklahoma. #okwx #APOD @ JimCantore @emilyrsutton @ Michael Seger pic.twitter.com/gXNlPMKucZ
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) 21 April, 2019
"I caught a number of sprites in 2018," Smith said in a mail, "but this last trip has been one of my favorites. It was very challenging with an almost full moon on my back."  Although the sprites are poorly understood, atmospheric electrodynamics have found the basics of their formation.
Sprites are often triggered by a strong, positive bolt of ordinary flash near the ground. They are considered a balancing mechanism that the atmosphere uses to deliver the costs vertically. It's a fast process that takes less than a tenth of a second. That's what makes hunting for sprites so tough. Flashes and you will miss them.
Sprites were not known until 1989. For decades, pilots had reported that they had seen huge volatile light rays over storm peaks, as did strobing pink fireworks.
But it was not until an auroral physicist at the University of Minnesota snapped a photo of one that scientists could confirm their existence. The physicist John R. Winckler had tested a low-light TV camera that would be used to document an upcoming rocket launch, and he accidentally photographed the alcohol.
Nowadays, images of sprites are routinely captured worldwide. With the right setting you can even try it from your garden!
Sprites are not terribly rare – they are just abominable. You need a free view of a distant, sparkling thunderstorm. It must be dark enough that your camera will not be overexposed by taking long exposures. It cannot be much light pollution, as it would wash out an attempt to lift a sprite. And of course you need strong storms. So the best odds of catching a sprite are over the Great Plains in the spring.
Sprites emit strong electrical disturbances near the surface. The more frequent and intense the flash at ground level the better the odds of seeing a sprite. Therefore, large, sprawling gaps or thunderstorm thunderstorms are more favorable initiatives for spirits activity than isolated storm cells.
June is the peak month for these types of storms, as large mesoscale convective systems burst through the central and high plains. These complexes can put down 100,000 or more lightning bolts every night and spread the sprites of dozens up above – if you know where to look.
So next time you enjoy a cool evening drink watching huge rage, watch out. You can see something incredible. Smith did it.
"I got my first liquor in 2017," he said, "and has been obsessed since then."
Last night I saw my first liquor with the naked eye, and that was it. I traveled to shoot over storms in downtown Kansas with little expectation. It became one of the biggest sprite storms I have ever seen with 3 mere moments. #okwx @breakingweather pic.twitter.com/7Fz5zzJViP
– Paul Smith (@ PaulSmi45427335) April 22, 2019
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This article was originally published by the Washington Post .