Mysterious “blue jets” reach even the Earth’s ionosphere

Rain. Clouds. Thunder. In the stratosphere there is none of this. The weather there is pretty dull. Except when the lightning flashes… Researchers call them “blue jets.” These elusive discharges leap into the stratosphere from lightning discharges far below.

They are rarely seen, but thunderstorm hunter Rob Nip was able to capture several of them over Sonora, Mexico, on Aug. 3:

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Nip, a former television journalist. “I was really looking for the sprites when the jets appeared. They were definitely visible to the naked eye, and both my cousin and I were watching them.”

Oscar van der Velde of the Lightning Research Group at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia watched Neep’s video and said it was “excellent-perhaps the best example of classic blue jets we’ve seen in a long time!”

First captured by cameras on the space shuttle in 1989, blue jets are part of a growing family of transient luminous phenomena (TLDs) in the upper atmosphere. They appear along with sprites, elves, and other lightning-like forms. However, blue jets seem more elusive than others and often frustrate photographers who try to catch them.

“We’re not sure why ground observers see them so rarely,” van der Velde says. “Perhaps it has something to do with their blue color. Earth’s atmosphere naturally scatters blue light, so they’re harder to see. Perhaps blue jets are much more common than we think.”

In 2018, SpaceX launched the European Atmospheric-Space Interaction Monitor (ASIM) to the International Space Station to study TLEs from space. Data from ASIM show that blue jets can skip up to 52 kilometers above the ground. They result from mysterious “blue bursts,” bright blue flashes at the tops of thunderclouds, possibly caused by strong turbulence.

Studying blue jets is important because, according to van der Velde, “these emissions could result in significant production of NOx and ozone, potentially affecting the chemical composition of the atmosphere.”

In addition, some blue jets could rise high enough to affect the ionosphere, forming a new and poorly understood branch of the global electrical circuit.

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