Hurricane Nicole Causes Mesmerizing Sprite Lightning Ahead of Landfall in Florida

by Megan Molseed
(Getty Images)

Hurricane Nicole hit the Florida coast earlier this week. But before making landfall, this storm caused a rare weather phenomenon that scientists call sprite lighting. These are discharges that are similar to lightning that occurs above thunderstorms. They can occur at heights of up to around 50 miles into the atmosphere.

Hurricane Nicole Brings Fascinating Phenomenon Just Before Making Landfall

Hurricane Nicole hit the Florida coast on November 8. And, the sprite lightning was spotted just prior to the hurricane making landfall

“This sprite appeared over one of the outer bands that was generating lots of lightning,” notes Frankie Lucena. The Puerto Rico-based photographer captured similar occurrences in 2016.

“By the way, the outer bands [of the storm] are the best places to look for sprites,” Lucena explains. “Back in 2016, I captured a bunch of sprites in one of the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew.”

According to Caitano L. da Silva, a physics professor at New Mexico Tech, these events are “large-scale, lightning-like discharges that happen above thunderstorms.”

da Silva adds that the lightning sprites happen in “response to powerful cloud-to-ground (CG) flashes in the underlying thunderstorms.”

“These CG flashes radiate a strong electric field that creates sprites at the edge of the lower ionosphere, aka the edge of space,” da Silva relates. “Sprites are brief, but are huge, 50 km [30 miles] tall by 50 km [30 miles] across, about the size of a small town.”

The Sprites “Behave” Differently Because Of Varying Atmosphere Temperatures

József Bór, a lightning researcher at the Institute of Earth Physics and Space Science explains that the altitude range of these lightning sprites is “actually the coldest region of the atmosphere with temperatures down to -120 degrees Celsius.” This temp translates to -180 degrees Fahrenheit.

“In these harsh and vertically rather uneven conditions, the developing electric discharge behaves differently at different altitudes so that eventually a figure like this is formed,” Bór adds. He also notes that the sprites are a sort of “secondary lightning.” Following “conventional, but very intense lightning strokes which can be considered as the parent lightning of the subsequently appearing red sprite.”

When the original lightning discharges and moves some of the electric charges from the cloud on the ground an extra amount of opposite electric charge stays on top of the thundercloud.