Huge plumes of lightning sometimes fire into the upper atmosphere, originating in storm clouds in the lowest portion of Earth's atmosphere and ending near the edge of space. Now, scientists have described the largest known instance of the phenomenon known as "jet lightning" and have discovered new information about this rare species of lightning.
The gigantic jet lightning happened above eastern China on Aug. 12, 2010, quite a distance north of the equator, on about the same latitude as the northern border of South Carolina. Usually these phenomena occur only in tropical and subtropical climates. So it was a scientific thrill to get a report of the gigantic jet lightning from that location.
"This is the first report from mainland China," Jing Yang, an atmospheric scientist at the Chinese Academy of Scientists in Beijing, told "Our Amazing Planet."
This gigantic jet topped out in the atmosphere at around 55 miles above the Earth's surface. That's much higher than the 11 miles the tops of the clouds researchers measured were, where Doppler radar measured the clouds.
Rumors about electrical activity above thunder clouds circulated for years, before the phenomenon was proven just last century.
"Our Amazing Planet" reported that in 2001, scientists discovered the gigantic jet lightning arcing from clouds in the lowest portion of the atmosphere, the layers of gas spanning from the troposphere, to the ionosphere. Amercian researchers saw a blue jet reaching 44 miles above clouds, from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. That height was twice that of any previously reported jet lightning.
From that, the first confirmed instance, it was known that gigantic jet lightning was caused by the differences in electric particles in these lower parts of the atmosphere and the rest of the atmosphere, interacting with extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sun, colliding with air molecules to produce the highly charged particles.
Jet lightning can take many different forms, including orange-red flashes known as sprites and blue jets, which flash into the sky as visible blue cones. In 2002, scientists described two other formations of lightning, including "tree jets" and "carrot jets."
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