Blue jets are lightning-like, atmospheric electric discharges of several hundred millisecond duration that fan into cones as they propagate from the top of thunderclouds into the stratosphere1. They are thought to initiate in an electric breakdown between the positively charged upper region of a cloud and a layer of negative charge at the cloud boundary and in the air above. The breakdown forms a leader that transitions into streamers2 when propagating upwards3. However, the properties of the leader, and the altitude to which it extends above the clouds, are not well characterized4. Blue millisecond flashes in cloud tops5,6 have previously been associated with narrow bipolar events7,8, which are 10- to 30-microsecond pulses in wideband electric field records, accompanied by bursts of intense radiation at 3 to 300 megahertz from discharges with short (inferred) channel lengths (less than one kilometre)9,10,11. Here we report spectral measurements from the International Space Station, which offers an unimpeded view of thunderclouds, with 10-microsecond temporal resolution. We observe five intense, approximately 10-microsecond blue flashes from a thunderstorm cell. One flash initiates a pulsating blue jet to the stratopause (the interface between the stratosphere and the ionosphere). The observed flashes were accompanied by ‘elves’12 in the ionosphere. Emissions from lightning leaders in the red spectral band are faint and localized, suggesting that the flashes and the jet are streamer ionization waves, and that the leader elements at their origin are short and localized. We propose that the microsecond flashes are the optical equivalent of negative narrow bipolar events observed in radio waves. These are known to initiate lightning within the cloud and to the ground, and blue lightning into the stratosphere, as reported here.
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All the data that are used to produce the figures in this paper are uploaded to Zenodo at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4066776.
Commercial code SMARTS is used for atmospheric transmission calculations. Python is used for plotting.
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ASIM is a mission of ESA’s SciSpace programme for scientific utilization of the ISS and non-ISS space exploration platforms and space environment analogues. ASIM and the ASIM Science Data Centre are funded by ESA and by national grants of Denmark, Norway and Spain. This project received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant 296 agreement 722337. The Norwegian analysis was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement number 320839, and the Research Council of Norway under contracts 208028/F50 and 223252/F50 (CoE). The Spanish contribution was supported by Ministerio Ciencia e Innovación grant ESP 2017-86263-C4. We thank Vaisala for the GLD360 lightning data.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature thanks Vladimir Rakov and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
t = 0 ms corresponds to 15:10:40.000 utc. a, b, The photometer signals as functions of time around the first blue flash. The same data are shown on a linear scale (a) and a logarithmic scale (b). c, The photometer signals on a longer time scale that corresponds to the four camera frames downlinked. d, e, Four frames of the blue (d) and red (e) cameras. The colour scale is adjusted to the maximum pixel value of each image; from left to right the maxima are: 9,113, 4,350, 5,916 and 84 μW sr−1m−2 (d); and 1,450, 61, 70 and 71 μW sr−1 m−2 (e). The blue photometer signal decays over many hundred ms and has three pulses, resembling the blue jet of flash 3. The white arrows point towards the direction of the ISS.
t = 0 ms corresponds to 15:11:04.000 utc. During this event, a lightning flash triggers an elve ~800 μs before a blue flash (Fig. 4b, d). a, The photometer signals on a time scale that corresponds to the camera frames downlinked. The red peaks are lightning and the UV peaks are associated elves. b, c, The camera images are shown with a colour scale that is adjusted to the maximum pixel value of each image; from left to right the maxima for the blue camera frames are: 7,890, 5,026, 387, 237, 449 and 200 μW sr−1 m−2 (b); and for the red camera frames: 423, 146, 169, 129, 191 and 109 μW sr−1 m−2 (c).
t = 0 ms corresponds to 15:11:13.000 utc. The blue flash of Fig. 4a, c. a, The photometer signal on a time scale that corresponds to the camera frames downlinked. b, c, The camera images with a colour scale that is adjusted to the maximum pixel value of each image; from left to right the maxima for the blue camera frames are: 1, 7,604 and 2,380 μW sr−1 m−2 (b); and for the red camera frames: 1, 261 and 55 μW sr−1 m−2 (c).
t = 0 ms corresponds to 15:11:25.000 utc. a, b, The photometer signals as functions of time around the blue flash. The same data are shown on a linear scale (a) and a logarithmic scale (b). c, The photometer signals on a longer time scale that corresponds to the camera frames downlinked. d, e, The camera images with a colour scale that is adjusted to the maximum pixel value of each image; from left to right the maxima for the blue camera frames are: 1, 10,027 and 13 μW sr−1 m−2 (d); and for the red camera frames: 1, 113, 54 μW sr−1 m−2 (e).
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Neubert, T., Chanrion, O., Heumesser, M. et al. Observation of the onset of a blue jet into the stratosphere. Nature 589, 371–375 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-03122-6