Pick of the pics and Climate Change: News and Comments
Sprites fight in the upper atmosphere
Two enormous electrical discharges called sprites are seen brushing together in this conflation of a series of high-speed TV images, looking out over the sea from Catalonia towards Italy. The scale shows the heights above sea level, with the whole phenomenon stretching from 50 to 83 km altitude, and all over in a matter of milliseconds. Source: Joan Montanyà et al., see references.
The following video is in Spanish, but it includes the event shown as a still image above, fully animated.
You can see other video examples of high-altitude phenomena called sprites, elves and jets in the first image on this ESA page
Sprites, elves and jets link thunderstorms and the upper atmosphere, as in this diagram from the National Space Institute in the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
If “elve” (not “elf”) bothers you in the diagram, be aware that elves is a joky acronym: “emissions of light and VLF perturbations from electromagnetic sources”.
The European Space Agency is preparing an experiment called the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) to observe these events from the International Space Station. The word is that it’s due to fly in 2013.
As for the link to climate physics, here’s a comment made by the ASIM principal investigator a few years ago:
“The question is how are these giant flashes of lightning created and how often do they take place”, says senior scientist Torben Neubert, head of the project at the Danish National Space Centre.
It may well be that the large electrical bursts remove ozone from the atmosphere, and in so doing influence the climate. “We need to understand the natural processes which influence the atmosphere and this can help us decide which changes in the climate are man-made”, Torben Neubert states.
It’s hard to resist pointing out a moral in this tale. Seafarers and mountain-dwellers have noticed these high-altitude lightning flashes for centuries or millennia. They may have provoked some religious experiences. Back in 1925 C.T.R. Wilson, who invented the cloud chamber, predicted the creation of very energetic “runaway” electrons by thunderstorms. In 1956, at the age of 87, Wilson at last saw the high-altitude phenomenon for himself. So did airline pilots and UFO watchers.
Yet our know-it-all meteorologists scorned the existence of sprites until 1990, when 74-year-old John Winckler from the University of Minnesota reported that he had caught a brief image with a low-light TV camera that he was testing. So what else don’t we know, or what are we ignoring, about events and processes at the Earth’s frontier with outer space?
For an impression of how lively this field of research now is, see the titles in
J. Montanyà et al.,”Intensified high-speed video recordings of sprites and elves over the western Mediterranean Sea during winter thunderstorms.” Journal of Geophysical Research 115, A00E18, 8 PP., 2010
Press releases are available in English
and in Spanish
Neubert quote from
C. T. R. Wilson, “The acceleration of Beta-particles in strong electric fields such as those of thunderclouds”, Proc. Camb. Philos. Soc., 22, 534, 1925
J.R. Winckler et al., “Television image of a large upward electrical discharge above a thunderstorm”, Science, 249, 48-51, 1990.