For the longest time, scientists didn’t believe the pilots who reported strange lights above the clouds during thunderstorms.
In fact, some anecdotal reports of these lights dated back to the 1700s, but no one had ever been able to produce solid evidence.
That changed in 1989, when scientists from the University of Minnesota captured low-light footage of towering columns of light above a thunderstorm.
The strange lights do exist, and today they’re known as transient luminous events, each with their own name. Red sprites appear like jellyfish reaching into the sky. They last only milliseconds. Blue jets emerge from the tops of storm clouds, shooting upward in cone-like shapes.
Elves are perhaps even stranger, lasting for less than a millisecond and spreading out over the sky in great rings. Their name means “Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources,” and they were first observed via a low-light camera aboard the Space Shuttle in 1992.
What Causes Red Sprites, Blue Jets, and Elves?
While these phenomena only occur during thunderstorms, not every thunderstorm produces blue jets, red sprites, and elves. Instead, scientists have believed for some time that plasma irregularities in the ionosphere during thunderstorms are the true cause.
A recent study seems to have confirmed as much. Researchers studied high-speed video and created a mathematical model to track the evolution of the sprites.
“Analysis of the videos showed that streamers snake downward from the sprites much more quickly than they spread horizontally, suggesting plasma irregularities were driving the streamer spread.”
It’s still unclear what would cause these “plasma irregularities,” but, yes, meteors are on the table.
Anyway, the video up there, produced in 1994, shows off some color footage of these red sprites and blue jets above the clouds, as well as some other interesting facts. You can just feel the early 90s oozing out of it.