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Like a Bolt Out of the Blue: Lightning – Part 2

July 12, 2014

Late evening western sky with distant storm.

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July brings days of independence with Independence Day (U.S.) and Canada Day. Since July is the heart of the thunderstorm season, not all of the fireworks you will see this month are manmade. The skies will be filled with light, and lightning.

There are different types of lightningsome quiet weird! Source: NOAA

As my previous post on lightning noted, those lights are spectacular electric sparks. The collision of ice and slush churning in a thundercloud builds up static electricity. The slush near the bottom of the cloud builds up a negative charge while the tiny ice crystals carried to the top become positive. Finally, the charges equal out—BANG! The charge flows somewhere and about 25% of the time it hits the ground. The rest of the time, it explodes in the air and the skies light up. Sometimes, the lightning and lights are very weird—forming red sprites, blue jets, or even elves.

Three fourths of all lightning stays in the sky, even soaring up toward space. Source: Wikipedia

Most lightning flashes in the air, rather than striking the ground. You see the clouds light up and hear the thunder. The majority of these flashes are “heat lightning” with the electricity flowing between the top and bottom of a cloud, making the whole thundercloud glow. The next most common is the “anvil crawlers” and the electricity sparks from cloud to cloud.

Some of these sparks flare straight up towards space. For more than two hundred years, scientists dismissed these types of lightning as nonexistent. Then, on July 6, 1989, scientists from the University of Minnesota accidentally captured the first image of the glowing red lightning dancing high in the air. They named the “nonexistent” lightning a sprite, after fairy-tale air sprites.

A circle of red sprites dancing 50 miles high in the sky. Source: Wikipedia

Since then other forms of lightning have been found and given exotic namesblue jets, red sprites, elves, trolls and even tiny gnomes. The area above storms can get very strange.

This is the season to see these rare forms of sky lightning. Over the past two weeks, there have been dozens of sightings, usually over the Midwest and Great Plains. So go outside and look upthe skies are filled with “magical” lights. 


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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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