UFOs or High Altitude Lightning?

Article written: 23 Feb , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Over 90% of UFO sightings can be easily explained, and are usually visual misinterpretations of meteors, weather balloons, a flock of birds, blimps, or even the Moon. Here’s one more to add to the list of items mistakenly identified as UFO’s: sprites. No, not the elf or troll-like sprites, but a natural phenomenon which occurs during thunderstorms. “Sprites appear above most thunderstorms,” said Colin Price of the Tel Aviv University, “but we didn’t see them until recently. They are high in the sky and last for only a fraction of a second.” While there is much debate over the cause or function of these mysterious flashes in the sky, Price says they may explain some bizarre reports of UFO sightings.

Sprites are described as flashes high in the atmosphere, between 35 and 80 miles from the ground, much higher than the 7 to 10 miles where regular lightning bolts usually occur.

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” explained Price, head of the Geophysics and Planetary Sciences Department at Tel Aviv University. “We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”
The appearance of a "sprite" (about 30 miles high by 30 miles wide), flashing above a distant thunderstorm. The "sprite" is about 175-250 miles away from the camera. Credit: ILAN Science Team
Though sprites have existed for millions of years, they were first discovered and documented only by accident in 1989 when a researcher studying stars was calibrating a camera pointed at the distant atmosphere where sprites occur.

“Sprites, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own, and are cousins to similar natural phenomenon dubbed by atmospheric electricians as ‘elves,’ ‘goblins’ and ‘trolls,'” said Price. These flashes are so named because they appear to “dance” in the sky, which may explain some UFO sightings.

Price and has led students and other researchers in studying sprites for several years, and Tel Aviv University has been one of the leaders in researching the phenomenon. Now, Price and his students are teaming up with students from The Open University and The Hebrew University to take three-dimensional pictures of sprites to gain a better understanding of their structure. Using remote-controlled roof-mounted cameras, the researchers are able to look at the thunderstorms that produce sprites when they are still over the Mediterranean Sea.

Using new camera techniques has revealed the sprites’ circular structures, which are much like those of candles on a birthday cake. Using triangulation, Price and his team have also been able to calculate the dimensions of the sprites’ features. “The candles in the sprites are up to 15 miles high, with the cluster of candles 45 miles wide — it looks like a huge birthday celebration!”

Because of their high altitude, sprites may also have an impact on the chemistry of the Earth’s ozone layer. “Since they are relatively infrequent, the global impact is likely small,” said Price. “But we’re researching that now.”

Source: PhysOrg

19 Responses

  1. robbi says

    In the late 1970s’ I brought my family to visit my first cousin living east of Denver on a bluff and able to look east toward the Great Plains, the 3rd day I noted the most nasty looking cold front 100 miles away, at night, I thought I saw lighting going upwards and had some color, I thought I was seeing things but I saw a few upward flashes but thought it was just some cloud effects causing such effects, my kids also saw the same thing and it was brief flashes but although the supercell thunderstorms was about 100 miles away, it was just an effect by the atmosphere. I then ready an article about 1991 in Discover magazine that they finally saw the flashes using advanced cameras able to break the frames into 1/1000 of a secondth. I’ve read a book by William R Corliss Unusual Natural Phenomena in the late 70s’ taking about people,especially airline pilots seeing these things but was
    called by their managers as seeing ‘hallucinations’ . The book discribed many unusual natural phenomena
    and many became fact. Conventional thinking of scientist and meteorologist at the time before 1991 said ‘upward’ lightning was impossible. Sometimes, the greatest finds and discoveries are by people who thought ‘thinking outside the box’ instead of being to too involved with conventional facts.
    The atmosphere is something that has been studied much but the unusual dynamics and.
    unusual natural phenomena is something that stumps scientists and meteorologists.
    Although scientist uses the super ‘puters to try and predict the weather, they will never get it right, the more scientist knows, the more
    questions are being raised about our weather and climate. In the 60s’ and 70s’, meteorologists though they will be able to perfectly predict the weather 30 days in advance by 1990- however, the findings of the laws of ‘chaoic behavior’ on the subatomic level was finally understood, and the scientist and meteorlogists knows anything predicted over 72 hours is really impossible to get right. The Earths’ weather will do what it will do, regardless of humans attempted interferences.

  2. Yael Dragwyla says

    Nancy — Not to quibble, but you said that “sprites have existed for millions of years.” It’s been *much* longer than that — several billion years is more like it. Lightning is ubiquitious in time and space, and you can bet it’s livened up the night on our world ever since our world came into existence.

  3. Yael Dragwyla says

    Oops — meant to add, sprites have existed on our world for billions of years, ever since it began.

  4. Anaconda says

    Science knows the Earth has an electromagnetic magnetosphere. These Sprites are very high up above thunder & lightning storms. 35 to 80 miles high.

    And these Sprites only appear above thunder & lighting storms.

    That hight would seem to indicate that weather has an interaction with the magnetophere and the magnetosphere has an interaction with the weather.

    Lightning is plasma. Plasma is present in the magnetosphere.

  5. Andy says

    I wonder if, from the pictures that have been taken, a similar phenomenon could be detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

  6. to says

    Explain this sprites
    as lightnings, meteors, weather balloons, a flock of birds, blimps, or even more idiotic stuff.

  7. LaF says


    UFO+Sprite => UFOCapture :
    Sprite Video from Japanese Meteor Capture Program


    To to :
    It’s not UFO ,or Sprite, it’s pilar’s light see there :


  8. robbi says

    to Says-these are sprites of unusual duration
    and Anaconda is quite correct-this is more like the plasmatic event of extreme magnitude and intensity. These events happens from time to time, especially in the Great Plains, the most violent thunderstorms on Earth caused by the contrast between the cold Polar air, warm Gulf air and dry Rocky mountain air clashing, the likes of which no other areas on Earth has. Conventional thinking by scientist and meteorologist says for pilots to avoid Supercell thunderstorms, so very few events are seen. Someone who rresearchs ‘outside the box’ of conventional thinking like Anaconda ,but dispised by conventional scientist and meteorologist,
    are the ones who holds the key what causes these unusual events. Scientist and meteorolgist are baffled by these events, however, someone like Acaconda does have the keys, but, conventional scientist and meteorologist does like like someone who says they can be wrong, and don’t like funding for someone like Anaconda whose independent research and findings are ‘outside the box’ of conventional facts.
    Like I stated on my earlier post
    ” Sometimes, the greatest finds and discoveries are by people who thought ‘thinking outside the box’ instead of being to too involved with conventional facts.”

  9. robbi says

    I have to retrract my previous post, when checking frame by frame, I can see Stars in the sky, I thought at first there was moving Sprites, however, no movement was seen.
    I check other frames for ‘elves,’ ‘goblins’ and ‘trolls, there should be some dancing-none I see= this appears to be a ground based light lighting up a cloud but atmospheric distortions and the poor quality
    of the film and the location of Irag in relation to climate types makes me say this is not a true Sprite event , Bagedad is a semi arid climate, the little rains they have are of a Mediterranean type, moist in Winter and dry in Summer, when going north to Mosul, that area is barely Mediterranean type, the Summers are as hot as the Mojave Desert but the winters are like mild and moist, 15″ of rain a year, the Jan temp is 55 day 35 nite and summers are 109 days 72 night.
    There is not enoug contrasting climate types to creat a severe thunderstorms like that of the American Great Plains.
    I dont’ think many in Iraq will go to the coast to ‘cool’ off, I’ve saw readiings in places like Abu Dhabi have a midnight temperature of 94F and heavy fog!!! The dew point was also 94F and the heat index was 152F , this is not good sleeping weather.!!! The summers in places like Basra makes the temperature feell like 135F because of the high humidity and the nights are not really cool.
    The true Sprite and other unusual natural phenomena associated with the awesome supercell thunderstorms of the midwest is
    truly associated with Acaconda statements
    and was an embarrasing find for the conventional thinking scientist and meteorologist , more research is needed for why such events happens and what its’ true
    impact and importance is for our Earth- this requires research from those who thinks ‘outside the box’ of conventional facts!!!

  10. ND says


    Thinking outside the box (to overuse a cliche) is important to prevent dogma to set in, but you also need to understand the science behind any topic before you can say that it makes no sense. Someone like Anaconda is not that person. In debates it became clear that he’s just regurgitating other people’s ideas without understating the science behind it. He does not have the plasma physics background that he needs to properly argue for plasma cosmology. Anaconda’s independent research is reading other people’s ideas on the web.

  11. robbi says

    UN- Thank you for the feedback-I still relatively new on this site, so I’m not that
    familiar with nicknames here.
    I will have to stay quite neutral on both sides of an issue of ‘an exchange of truths’, but, I do at times have to question how things like how a comet like Holmes brightened up so much dispite being so far from the Sun or
    thunderstorm events I saw long ago or things like the noctural lights much more brilliant than will-o’-the-wisps and are real and can scare many people and can become legends or myths until they understand it is a still mysterious natural phenomena. Of course, about all ‘UFO’ are generally hoaxes or people on drugs or crazy or looking at Venus for the first time -‘ball lightning’ is real, and seen by many scientist and was finally mimic by sciientist in an article I read in Scientifc American and Discover Mag and some other ‘net articles, Brilliant Oceanic Phosphorescent Displays for ships plying the Indian Ocean near the Persian Gulf has at time suddenly light up a dark night and sea and brightens up sea from horizon to horizon-some were very brilliant-of course, they thought it was drunk sailors or drugged up people. Later on it was found there was luminous marine organisms responsible for some of the light but and taking a bucket of water and the water was lite up! But still, from time to time, the sea would lighten up much more and was still thought of as drunk,hoaxes, the crazies, however, by 1998, the orbiting satillite saw a large 40x60mile or 65x100Kilometer lite up on the night darkness of the Indian Ocean for about 3-4 hours and shrunk in size to nothing quite quickly and was of course far too luminous for marine organisms to produce such brilliances.! Needless to say, the late ‘drunk’ sailors was vindicated but since such sea events are very rare and may have been reported/happened 3-4 times in a year and may not appear again for a few years and is unpredictable but such an event, something you would least expect to happen, happens and is real! Scientist cannot explain such
    events as satillites saw occurances about 8-10 times this decade and happens in an unpredictable time pattern. I am certain this is some type of unusual natural phenomena
    of some type electrical nature, so I’m thinking ‘outside the box’, Still, thank you for you post

  12. robbi says

    addendum= I meant to be addressed to ND, not UN lol

  13. ND says


    I’ll have to check out the phosphorescent displays you mention. The world and the universe is full of surprises 🙂 I’m sure astronomers want to know about Holmes’ odd behavior.

    I’ve always wondered why those sprites looked oddly familiar. They look like jellyfish!

  14. A. Rubin says

    You better get acquainted with the Electric Universe. – http://www.thunderbolts.info/resources.htm#THE_ELECTRIC_SKY

  15. robbi says

    ND- Somethings I think of the super luminous sea is caused by the oceanic plates rubbing together, causing what is known on land as ‘Earthquake lights’ , such lights have been witnessed by thousands minutes before a big earthquake, not all earthquakes cause these strange but real ‘Earthquake lights’ and the cause is by friction within the Earth causing some extreme electircal charge as explained by scientist. In areas of the world where the towns or cities are not brightened by light pollution lights, such ‘Earthquake lights’ are reported into recent times. Before these ‘Earthquake lights’ was studied, scientist thought the populous was hallucinating or in shock by the earthquake event, but too many events in China and other areas was witnessed by more educated minds and such light events was studied.These super luminous sea events
    does not happen in the same area, and are
    in different areas. Luminous marine life by inself is interesting and makes me wonder if scientist are studying the process and able to create ‘biological’ batteries!

  16. ND says

    A Rubin,

    “You better get acquainted with the Electric Universe.”

    … or else what?

  17. Peter says

    One way to make others have confidence in your points is to write coherently.
    Man, it’s hard to get through some of these thoughts without flinching!

  18. toolfordils toolfordils says

    Can ice particles/blocks be formed by sprites? And does it produce a louder sound than a thunderstorm?

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      As for ice formation, who knows? Sprites are electric streamers from dielectric breakdown above certain lightning discharges (i.e. the more powerful but rarer cloud-to-ground positive discharges).* They could affect high altitude ice formation.

      Sounds correlated with sprites or their production is an area of research:

      Q&A from Sky-Fire Productions**:

      “Do sprites make thunder?

      There is growing evidence that sprites – or their parent lightning – may produce sound waves at extremely low frequencies (around 1 Hertz). Below the range of human hearing, these infrasound waves can be picked up by special receivers at ranges of hundreds if not thousands of miles away. While not thunder in the usual sense of the word, these infrasound emissions are the acoustic signature of the processes which produce sprites.”

      * Taken from Q&A from Sky-Fire Productions.

      ** “Sky Fire Productions, Inc. (a division of FMA, Inc) was created on the principle that working scientists should play an increasing role in local and national science education, both through the formal and especially informal education mechanisms. The principals are active researchers and science educators.”

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