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Lightning Shows

March 21, 2011

[SFX: sharp lightning, followed by rumble]

Few displays in nature can beat the hair-raising power and beauty of lightning. Yet like the exposed part of an iceberg, the lightning we see is only part of the story. The same process that creates a bolt of lightning can also create fainter lightshows that reach all the way to the edge of space.

Pilots reported many of these displays throughout the 20th century. But it wasn't until late in the century that any of them were photographed and studied. That's because the lightshows above the clouds are much fainter than those below, and usually much briefer. And you have to be away from the clouds to see them. In fact, many of the sightings have come from astronauts flying high above them.

The brightest and longest of the displays are known as blue jets. The cone-shaped flashes of blue can extend up to 20 miles above the cloudtops.

Above the jets are displays known as red sprites. They often form masses of red, with fainter tendrils trailing below them like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Sprites can reach altitudes of about 60 miles, but they last only a couple of thousandths of a second.

And topping them all are faint disks or haloes of light known as elves.

Not all storms produce displays above the clouds. But the ones that do help scientists understand the processes that create what we can see: lightning. [more sfx]

We'll talk about another type of lightning outburst tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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