Local expert explains sprites as lightning increases this spring

Sprites at Kaw Lake (Paul M. Smith Photography)
Sprites (Paul M. Smith Photography)
Lightning Sprites (Paul M. Smith Photography)
Posted at 7:20 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 09:50:19-05

TULSA, Okla. — Sprites are a rare occurrence but have been observed high above Oklahoma.

With severe spring season starting soon, the amount of lightning will increase, and sprites are directly tied to lightning.

Scientists believe a positive bolt of lightning underneath a thunderstorm causes the sprites. In a balancing act of nature, you get an electrical discharge vertically above the storm away from the lightning bolt, and that's what you see as the sprites.

"The lightning strike changes the electric field in the upper atmosphere to this critical level where the air breaks down, and you see it get excited," said Paul Smith, an Oklahoma sprites expert, and photographer. "And you see this red color of nitrogen molecules being excited kind of instantaneously, and it only lasts 40 milliseconds like a fraction of a second."

To capture these, you need to take an extended exposure photo or record a video and slow it down later to spot them.

Sprites can extend upwards of 50 miles and can be 30 miles across.

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