Lightning on Earth is getting weirder and weirder. On the evening of Sept. 20th, Puerto Rican photographer Frankie Lucena pointed his camera at an offshore electrical storm.
Now this is what he saw:
“This Gigantic Jet plasma event occurred over a very powerful thunderstorm near the Virgin Islands just ahead of Tropical Storm Peter,” says Lucena. “I can’t believe I was able to capture such amazing details.”
This Gigantic Jet plasma event occurred over a very powerful thunderstorm near the Virgin Islands and also near Tropical Storm Peter. It was recorded on Sept 20, 2021, at 10:41 pm (02:41 UTC) facing NE from Cabo Rojo, PR, as shown on the map below:
Elusive gigantic jets
This is one of the best-ever photos of a Gigantic Jet. Sometimes called “Earth’s tallest lightning,” because they reach the ionosphere more than 50 miles high, the towering forms were discovered near Taiwan and Puerto Rico in 2001-2002.
Since then, only dozens of Gigantic Jets have been photographed. They seem to love storms over water and are famous for surprising passengers onboard commercial aircraft.
In 2017 and 2018, lightning researcher Oscar van der Velde of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya set up high speed cameras on the northern coast of Colombia in a dedicated campaign to capture Gigantic Jets. In three months of observing time he managed to capture only 12. That’s how elusive they are.
“Frankie has photographed a rare Gigantic Jet with ‘carrot’ morphology, first reported by Su et al (2003),” notes van der Velde. “The other, more common type of jet has a ‘tree’ morphology.” Here is a comparison: trees vs. carrots.
“Carrot jets” are remarkable for their internal beads – that is, bright balls of light hundreds of meters wide. Lucena caught dozens of them illuminating the jet’s midsection. They might be places where streamers inside the jet are intersecting, or regions of enhanced heating.
“We don’t know,” says van der Velde. “Gigantic Jets are not easily placed in front of a spectrograph.”
Meanwhile, Lucena is still marveling at what happened. “This is the brightest Gigantic Jet I have ever seen. It was truly remarkable.”
What are gigantic jets?
Gigantic jets are transient luminous events (TLE) also known as upper-atmospheric lightning or ionospheric lightning and are believed to be electrically induced forms of luminous plasma.
TLEs are secondary phenomena that occur in the upper atmosphere in association with underlying thunderstorm lightning.
The chart below presents all the Transient Luminous Event that have been observed so far:
What are the different types of transient luminous events?
SPRITES: They initiate between 65 and 85 km in altitude and are typically triggered by a positive cloud-to-ground lightning strike. The streamers first grow downward and then upwards before disappearing. They are mainly red in color but as they grow downward they will transition to purple and then to blue.
HALOS: They are typically triggered by a positive cloud-to-ground lightning strike like sprites and will sometimes appear together with sprites. They initiate at about 80-85 KM and will typically look like a red oval shaped cloud.
TROLLS: They occur during long-lasting sprite events with ongoing lightning activity in the cloud and with long lasting +CG currents to ground. Its hard to link them to a particular cloud-to-ground lightning strike. They are mainly purple in color like the tendrils of a sprite and will transition to blue towards the bottom.
ELVES: They are an electromagnetic pulse that originates at the same time as the cloud-to-ground lightning strike. They project a ring of red light as electrons at the base of the ionosphere excite nitrogen molecules. They typically appear at about 90 Km in altitude and are considered the most common type of Transient Luminous Event.
BLUE STARTERS: A blue starter is an electric streamer discharge that initiates under the screening layer at the cloud top. They start out as a white channel rising from the cloud top that quickly transitions to a blue fan shaped plume as it travels upwards to about 26 Km in altitude. The white channel is rarely seen because they are typically obscured by the cloud.
BLUE JETS: They are often linked to charge removal by negative cloud-to-ground lightning. They initiate under the screening layer at the cloud top and they start out as a bright white channel rising from the top of the storm cloud that quickly transitions to a blue coned shaped plume as it travels upwards to about 40 Km in altitude. The white channel is rarely seen because they are often obscured by the cloud.
GIGANTIC JETS: Unlike Blue Jets and Starters, a Gigantic Jet initiates in the middle of the storm cloud. They start out as a bright white channel rising from the cloud top that quickly transitions to blue and then to red as it climbs as high as 80-90 Km in altitude. They are usually preceded by multiple negative cloud-to-ground lightning and will typically appear during a null in the lightning activity.
NEGATIVE SPRITE: These sprites are similar to regular sprites but are triggered by a negative polarity cloud to ground lightning discharge (-CG). A negative sprite requires a higher Charge Moment Change than a regular sprite and is usually located above the convective core, or the surrounding area, because this is where -CG lightning usually occurs.
GHOST: Newly discovered so little is known. They sometimes appear at the top of a Sprite event and are green in color. The green color is caused by electrons exciting Oxygen molecules high up in the Mesosphere at around ~80 Km.
PIXIES: They are blue emissions of light that are very small in size and usually located either on top or on the outer wall of the convective core of a storm cell.
SECONDARY GIGANTIC JET: They originate from the cloud top, under the shielding area of the preceding sprites, and develop upward to reach the lower ionosphere at ∼90 km. The streamers branch outward towards the top, which is similar to what occurs in a Gigantic Jet event.
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