The serendipitous observation in 1989 of electrical discharge in the high atmosphere induced by thundercloud lightning launched a new field of geophysical investigation. From this single unexpected observation sprang a vigorous and fertile new research field that simultaneously encompasses geophysical disciplines that are normally pursued independently, such as meteorology and lightning, plasma and gas discharge physics, atmospheric chemistry, ionospheric physics, and energetic particle physics.
Transient electrical discharge in the upper atmosphere spans the full range of altitudes between the tropopause and the ionosphere and takes a variety of forms that carry the whimsical names red sprites, blue jets, gigantic jets, elves (emissions of light and very low frequency perturbations from electromagnetic pulse sources), and sprite halos, collectively known as transient luminous events (TLEs). To date, TLEs have been observed from ground and airborne or space borne platforms above thunderstorm systems worldwide, and radio observations made concomitantly with optical observations have shown that they are produced by the transient far fields of thundercloud lightning. TLEs appear to be large-scale (tens of kilometers in dimension), upper atmospheric versions of conventional gas discharge akin to weakly ionized, collision-dominated systems found in laboratory discharge devices (millimeter-centimeter dimensions), with characteristic energies of a few electron volts. The dominant physical processes have been identified as described by the familiar kinetic theory of the photochemistry of the upper atmosphere, but with electric field—driven electron impact ionization playing the role of photolysis or energetic precipitating particle—induced ionization.