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Jellyfish-like lightning? Photographers ‘stood in awe’ of electrical sprites in Midwest

Screen grab of Paul M Smith Photography's Facebook post

When weather photographer Paul Smith went out to watch the night sky earlier this week, he found himself standing in awe as lightning sprites filled the horizon, according to his Facebook post.

He even called Sunday, April 21 “the best night ever under the stars.”

“Finally I CAN confirm that some sprites CAN be visible to the naked eye,” Smith wrote on his Facebook page, Paul M Smith Photography. “This one picture below, I saw in full color and detail as I stood in awe watching the distant lightning show. What you don’t realize looking at the screen is just how immense they are. This filled almost 1/3rd of the horizon that I could see.”

That same night, while Smith was capturing the sprite in Oklahoma, Blake Brown was photographing the sprite in Garden City, Kansas, according to Blake Brown Photography.

“Last night was incredible!” Brown wrote on Monday. “In total I captured 30 sprites on camera with these being the best ones! (Smith) and myself could visually see these with our eyes!!”

The sprite was also captured by photographer Scott Currans from a third angle, according to Smith.

“Look close and imagine the 40 mile wide 3D structure,” Smith tweeted. “Just amazing.”

So, what exactly are these sprites?

Sprites are large electrical discharges...,” LiveScience reports. “They resemble reddish-orange jellyfish with bluish tentacles streaming down.”

If you have never heard of sprites (let alone seen one for yourself), that could be because “they are rarely seen with the human eye,” according to The National Severe Storms Laboratory. “They are most often imaged with highly sensitive cameras.”

Red sprites also are usually not very bright, NSSL says, so you can only see them at night.

If you want to do good sprite hunting, you should know that “red sprites can appear directly above an active thunderstorm as a large but weak flash,” according to the NSSL. “They usually happen at the same time as powerful positive (cloud-to-ground) lightning strokes.”

A photo from the National Weather Services shows where you might find sprites in the sky.

And while they only last for a few seconds each, these sprites are not small.

“They can extend up to 60 miles from the cloud top,” according to the NSSL. “ ... and their shapes are described as resembling jellyfish, carrots, or columns.”

When reporting on other photos of sprites that Smith captured earlier this April, The Washington Post called the sprites “very large.”

“An ordinary lightning bolt is about an inch thick and several miles long,” the Post reported. “Jellyfish sprites can be 30 miles across. Imagine one electrical discharge spanning the distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.”

Last year, when Smith captured sprites over Oklahoma City, KOMO was sure to report that these electrical clusters are not aliens.

“It might be one of the most freakish, yet more beautiful natural phenomenon you’ll see,” KOMO reported, “a flash of ‘jellyfish sprite’ lightning.”

The American Meteorological Society describes sprite clusters as “weak luminous emissions that appear directly above an active thunderstorm.”

“Early research reports for these events referred to them by a variety of names, including upward lightning, upward discharges, cloud-to-stratosphere discharges, and cloud-to-ionosphere discharges,” the society says. “Now they are simply referred to as sprites, a whimsical term that evokes a sense of their fleeting nature, while at the same time remaining nonjudgmental about physical processes that have yet to be determined.”

Santa Barbara County came under a lightning storm that was captured by Mike Eliason, the public information officer for that area's fire department.

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