Near-space lightning may impact climate

Newly captured super-fast, extremely bright lightning in the upper-atmosphere, dubbed ‘Sprites’, may play a vital role in climate and solar activity, a new study has suggested.

Using high-speed cameras mounted in two airplanes, researchers captured the first three-dimensional views of sprites, which last for about 10 milliseconds and then disappeared.

According to geophysicist Hans Stenbaek-Nielson, University of Alaska in Fairbanks, sprites make up for their lack in staying-power with brightness.

The flashes, which are associated with parent lightning storms lower in the atmosphere, momentarily outshine Venus, the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.

Sprites radiate most of their visible light in deep red, which is not specifically visible to the human eye. But the impacts of sprites could be far-reaching.

Sprites trigger secondary lightning events known as streamers, which appear to connect directly to the lower atmosphere, the Discovery News reported.

“We don’t understand what’s going on here,” Stenbaek-Nielson said.

“When you look at sprites, there’s a lot of energy involved and there may be actual contact between the low-level cloud cover in the atmosphere, which would have global implications.”

“It may play an important role in solar activity and climate,” added Yukihiro Takahasi, a professor at the Department of Cosmosciences at Japan’s Hokkaido University.

Apart from impacting the motion of air, sprites have enough energy to set off chemical changes in the atmosphere, such as the production of ozone-eating nitrogen oxides.

“Traditionally, the weather here on the ground has been thought to be separated physically from the weather going on in space,” said Geoffrey McHarg, director of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center in Colorado.

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“It turns out that there might be something fundamental different going on in the middle,” McHarg added.

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