Weird weather: Strong thunderstorms can create ‘jellyfish’ lightning phenomena

Transient luminous event appears above thunderstorms unlike traditional lightning

Jellyfish sprite seen in red over an active storm in Honduras. (NASA)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Nearly everyday Central Florida summer storms bring quite a bit of lightning, but have you ever heard of a jellyfish sprite? This type of lightning isn’t seen as often but is a type of transient luminous event that happens high up in the atmosphere.

Sprites are a weak but amazing phenomena that happen right above an active thunderstorm. These flashes, occasionally seen by pilots, only last a few seconds and aren’t very bright. They resemble jellyfish when seen because of its numerous “tentacles” of electric bolts streaming down much like the sea creature they’re compared to.

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The cool part? These flashes are often red and so dim they’re only visible at night. In the picture, below courtesy of NASA, the sprite can be seen as a small red light on the right side of the photograph.

Jellyfish sprite seen in red over an active storm in Honduras. (NASA)

Unlike traditional lightning, this mysterious event doesn’t fall below the storm cloud but above it.

In fact, documented sprites studied by NOAA have been noted to go up to 60 miles above the cloud top, putting these electrical charges in the Earth’s mesosphere unlike where our normal thunderstorms happen in the troposphere.

This illustration shows where jellyfish sprites occur in the atmosphere. (NOAA)

Atmospheric scientists who have studied the lightning determined they are triggered by a strong bolt of positive charged cloud to ground lightning. If seen from Earth, they often appear very small and are gone in a flash as quickly as they appeared.


About the Author:

Emmy Award Winning Meteorologist Samara Cokinos joined the News 6 team in September 2017. In her free time, she loves running and being outside.