New high-resolution ground-based studies of sprites


  • J. R. Winckler,

  • W. A. Lyons,

  • T. E. Nelson,

  • R. J. Nemzek


New observations of sprites (cloud-ionosphere luminous discharges above thunderstorms) were made from the Yucca Ridge Field Station 20 km northeast of Fort Collins, Colorado, on the night of July 11–12, 1994, as part of a summer 1994 observing campaign. The sprites appeared above a moderate mesoscale convective complex mostly over Kansas at a range of about 270 km. The sprites were observed with both wide-field and telescopic image-intensified CCD TV cameras, a telescopic photometer system, and a 1- to 50-kHz band VLF sferics receiver. This paper is based on five 1-s data intervals containing bright sprites, smaller sprites, and cloud and sky flashes. Telescopic TV images of bright sprites had a fan-shaped upper plume with very fine features not well resolved by the TV, but dendritic (upward forked) and vertically striated forms adjacent to these plumes and bright points of luminosity around the plume-shaped regions. Many sprites consisted entirely of groups of vertically aligned striations which sometimes appeared to diverge from a common point of origin at cloud tops. All sprites in the present data sample were preceded by a cloud to ground (CG) stroke with a coincident sferic and sky flash. All CG strokes associated with sprites were positive, and most were 100 kA or more inferred peak current. From the photometer, the duration of the CG-induced sky flashes was about 3 ms and the additional sprite total light curve was also about 3 ms. The puzzling feature that the total duration of TV images of sprites was often longer than the photometric values is discussed and an explanation given. The sprites were attributed to strong negative charging, following the positive CG stroke, of a localized cloud top region which produced an intense electric field and a luminous discharge in the cloud-ionosphere region. The concept of “break-even” electric fields suggested by McCarthy and Parks may explain discharge initiation with moderate field strengths.