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Weather IQ: The lightning most people don't know about

Sprites, Blue Jets and Elves may sound like something from a children's book but they are all forms of lightning or "TLE's" that form above thunderstorms


Most likely when you think of lightning, images of the skies flashing with branches of white or purplish light across the horizon. 

But what if we told you this isn’t the only type of lightning. There are other rare types called Sprites, Blue Jets and Elves. Let’s raise that Weather IQ!

Positive and Negative Lightning:

The common lightning, we see is divided into two main types: Negative and positive lightning.

Both form when there is a connection between positive and negative charges in the atmosphere.

90% of all lightning is negative lightning, which comes from the base of the cloud. While the less frequent positive lightning comes from the top of the cloud.

Since positive lightning travels a much farther distance to make a channel:

  • It is 10 times stronger 
  • Lasts 10 times longer 
  • Can be 10 times louder

And the thunder it creates can really rattles the house.

RELATED: Weather IQ: Facts you need to know about lightning

But this extra energy can sometimes create something even rarer above the storm.

Blue Jets:

Credit: NASA

These cones of blue light erupt upwards from the top of thunderheads, to heights as high as 25 miles as seen from space here. These are essentially the discharge from very strong positive lightning strikes. It’s blue color is claimed to be from ionized nitrogen.


Lightning can also appear red and as you can below, they can sometimes look like a jelly fish!

Credit: Paul M Smith Photography

This happens directly above an active strong thunderstorm when a powerful electromagnetic field is created. The imbalance to the top of the atmosphere can cause this phenomena called Sprites. These can sometimes be seen from the ground but only last a fraction of a second.


Elves occur over 60 miles above Earths surface in the ionosphere (The layer above the top of our atmosphere where the auroras occur). These create a halo or a disk that can reach a diameter up to 250 miles.

Credit: NASA

The Technical Name:

Sprites Blue Jets and Elves are all TLE’s or Transient Luminous Events. These are fairly new discoveries first documented in the late 80s to the early 90s. The good news about TLE’s they stay well above us here on the surface.

Credit: NASA

There is still a lot to learn about these TLE's which are technically flashes of light instead of the technical definition of lightning.

"A visible electrical discharge produced by a thunderstorm. The discharge may occur within or between clouds, between the cloud and air, between a cloud and the ground or between the ground and a cloud"

Most likely in your lifetime you will not see one of these phenomena in person since they occur so high up and happen so fast, but at least you know you are there.

RELATED: When a storm has these features, a severe thunderstorm warning is issued

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