6 strange electrical light shows we rarely see in Earth's atmosphere

Open a cold car door and get shocked, rub a balloon on someone’s hair to make it stand up, or run for cover during a lightning storm — we’ve all had our run-ins with nature’s strange electrical powers.

Those displays are familiar, but a whole host of other, weirder electrical phenomena occur, specifically in Earth’s atmosphere — including a recent event astronauts photographed from space.

We started looking into other rare or unheard-of light shows that occur in the air around us, and we were surprised by what we found.

Scroll down to see some of the planet’s more elusive and mysterious electric, atmospheric phenomena.

1. Sprites

A red sprite photographed from space.

Sprites are giant electrical discharges that 'spark' high above storm clouds. They happen regularly but are rarely photographed, since they are so fleeting and giant clouds usually block our view.

NASA Earth Observatory


Sprites are red because they excite nitrogen in the atmosphere. Astronaut Scott Kelly snapped a photo of this sprite from the International Space Station in August.



2. Ball lightning


Sometimes luminous electric spheres appear during thunderstorms. Early eye-witness reports claim the balls don't just fade away -- but explode.

Wikimedia commons


Scientists call this phenomenon ball lightning, but we don't know much about it (including whether or not it actually explodes). The events are rarely and clearly recorded.

3. St. Elmo's fire

The ionized discharge of a Tesla coil.

4. Proton arcs

A proton arc is a rarer form of aurora. All auroras happen when the sun shoots energetic particles at Earth's magnetic field. The field rids itself of extra energy by spitting out electrons, exciting oxygen and nitrogen in the air -- ultimately shedding the energy as light.

But sometimes the Earth's magnetic field spits out high-energy protons instead of electrons. These collide with the atmosphere to create a plasma that forms tight wisps of reddish light: a proton arc.

5. Volcanic lightning

Also called dirty thunderstorms, this phenomenon is basically a massive lightning storm inside an active volcano's rising plume of ash, steam, and other gases.

Scientists aren't exactly sure what creates the electric charge that generates the lightning. One idea is that debris inside the ash plume rub together with ice in surrounding clouds to build up electric charge.

An electric current constantly flows between Earth's surface and the gases above it, creating a giant circuit. Scientists don't yet understand it well, but they suspect both thunderstorms and plasma ejections from the sun fuel the circuit.

Did we miss any weird electric atmospheric phenomena? Let us know in the comments below or email: [email protected]

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