From about 400 miles away in Puerto Rico, Frankie Lucena captured an incredible sight. Red sprites lighting up the sky above massive thunderstorms associated with Hurricane Matthew near Aruba and the northern tip of Colombia.
Credit: Frankie Lucena
Despite being rare and notoriously hard to photograph, Lucena captured 28 instances of sprites in the early morning hours of yesterday.
Talk about the right place at the right time. Clear skies over Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico made these observations possible. The sprites you see in the images and video are happening high above the swirling clouds of Hurricane Matthew.
Each sprite flashes for just a few milliseconds. In fact, they weren’t photographed until 1989. But better technology has made documenting these colorful flashes a bit easier since then. One place where sprites are often photographed is the International Space Station. You don’t need the perfect combination of clear weather where you are and a thunderstorm nearby. Astronauts aboard the ISS are above it all.
Sprites typically occur about 50 miles up in the atmosphere above the troposphere.
What causes sprites?
Most cloud to ground lightning has a negative charge. But about five percent of the time a rarer, more intense form of lightning strikes. Positive lightning. As the name suggests, it carries a positive charge. It’s this positive lightning that is believed to trigger red sprites high above the thunderclouds.
Lightning isn’t all that common in tropical systems unless they are undergoing rapid intensification. Which is exactly what was happening to Hurricane Matthew at the time. It was still likely a category five Hurricane when the images above were captured. It has since weakened slightly to a category four.
Lucena was looking directly into the mass of heavy convection to the east of Hurricane Matthew when he captured the sprites. Here’s a satellite image of that convection still going strong this afternoon.
And here’s the amount of lightning in that convection area east of Hurricane Matthew on September 30th.
— Jonathan Erdman (@wxjerdman) October 1, 2016
That lightning would have still been going strong (and still is) when Lucena captured his images.