Magic in the Skies: The Real Sprites, Elves, and Trolls

Oct 13, 2016
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Ever heard of lightning’s stranger cousins—red sprites, blue jets, elves, trolls, and gnomes?

No, these brilliant lights are not fairy tales; they are a colorful community of lightning flashes that occur above thunderstorms.

For over a century, these flashes of lightning that shot up from storm clouds, like stories of rains of toads, were dismissed as fiction. Even when respectable pilots or scientists (including CTR Wilson, a Nobel Prize winning physicist) described them, the scientific community ignored the events. Then, in 1989, something awkward happened. University of Minnesota scientists actually caught the so-called “sprites” on film (see above photo).


Since then, scientists have been studying not just the lightning that crashes down from thunderstorms, but also the colorful flashes that stream up towards space. Electricity soars up to the electrically charged ionosphere, just as it plunges down towards the earth.

Different TLEs flash at different levels in the sky. SOURCE: Wikipedia
Click image to expand

Together, these events are labeled Transient Luminous Events or TLEs. Individual light flashes have much more playful names. The original lights were named sprites because they were mysterious, the other lights received fairy names because scientists can have a sense of humor.

So, if you look high in the sky, over the thunderstorms, what can you see?

  • Sprites—The most common TLE is a flash of red light directly above large thunderstorms. Sprites flash a fraction of a second after strong lightning strokes, soaring up almost 60 miles high. They are most frequently seen in the Midwest.
  • Blue Jets—A blue jet is a dim blue light that rises like a quick puff of smoke above heavy hailstorms. They are quite rare and usually can only be seen from airplanes.
  • Elves—Elves are brief disks of dim light that appear around 60 miles high in the atmosphere. Actually, the name is an abbreviation of the disk’s real name—Emissions of Light and Very low frequency from EMP Sources.
  • Trolls—These red spots pop near cloud tops after the flash of an extremely strong red sprite. Like Elves, Trolls are an abbreviation: Transient Red Optical Luminous Lineament.

Look over the top of thunderstorms to see sprites and other flashes. SOURCE: NASA

  • Gnomes—The tiniest and quickest flashes are gnomes. They are small white spikes of light that flash for a microsecond from the top of a large thundercloud’s anvil.

So next time you see a thunderstorm, look above it. You may see a fairyland.

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to "Weather Whispers" by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these blog posts. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

Reader Comments

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lol! I had no idea that

lol! I had no idea that thunderstorms could produce pretty and colorful beams of light. I think ive seen an elf before, it was very incredible but i didnt know what i was seeing until just now! How rare is it to see one of these?

They are rare enough that

They are rare enough that scientists didn't believe in them until the last few decades. They assumed the lights were Northern Lights. As you saw, however, they look quite different.

Im now giving up on hope to

Im now giving up on hope to see a good soaking thunderstorm in the midwest. Ive been praying and praying and praying for rain, but look at that. EVERYTHING IS DEAD. It will never rain here again, it will never cool down, we wont have another good fall and winter. Its all gone and they arent coming back. we dont have 4 seasons, its summer year round! My grass is dead, the farms are just withered and the flowers are long gone. So much for el nino right? Winters dont exist anymore so no relief, everything changed. We took them for granted in the past so never wish winter away! I dont think anybody needs this

I'm so sorry. Don't give up

I'm so sorry. Don't give up on winter, however. Last winter was shaped by one of the strongest and oddest NAO oscillations in a century.

Also, check my next article on the potential El Nino. It usually brings cooler temperatures and more rains to some parts of the Midwest.

Worried about summer heat.

Worried about summer heat. When el nino comes what are the indications pointing towards fall? Wetter and cooler in the east? (south carolina to be exact) or still warm and very very dry? Because I was looking at the noaa website and they forecast intensifying drought conditions. Can you please help me?

I will do my next article on

I will do my next article on the potential impact of an El Nino.

Its sad that the last time

Its sad that the last time ive seen a rain drop was 2 weeks ago! The lower midwest and portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia needs the rain very very badly. The sun is just pounding down on us in nearly 100 degree heat. I wish we could see a good thunderstorm like that, but we are 60% of our normal rainfall for the whole year. Its a beauty but unfortunately all of us are praying for rain. We all need it! When will this torrid summer end? Its la nina that gives us the rain and cooler weather isnt it? If so, thats what we need. Thank you Evelyn for the blog. Ive never seen one of these light formations but i hope to soon!

I also hope you see a red

I also hope you see a red sprite or an elve, especially since you would be seeing it over it a nice, wet thunderstorm. Good Luck!




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