Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Observation of the onset of a blue jet into the stratosphere

An Author Correction to this article was published on 12 March 2021

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: The thunderstorm cell.
Fig. 2: Photometer signals of the flash leading to a blue jet.
Fig. 3: The pulsating blue jet.
Fig. 4: Photometer signals of blue flashes with elves.

Data availability

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.

Code availability

Commercial code SMARTS is used for atmospheric transmission calculations. Python is used for plotting.

Change history

References

  1. 1.

    Wescott, E. M., Sentman, D., Osborne, D., Hampton, D. & Heavner, M. Preliminary results from the Sprites94 aircraft campaign: 2. Blue jets. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 1209–1212 (1995).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Ebert, U. et al. Review of recent results on streamer discharges and discussion of their relevance for sprites and lightning. J. Geophys. Res. 115, A00E43 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Krehbiel, P. R. et al. Upward electrical discharges from thunderstorms. Nat. Geosci. 1, 233–237 (2008).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Mishin, E. V. & Milikh, G. M. Blue jets: upward lightning. Space Sci. Rev. 137, 473–488 (2008).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Wescott, E. M., Sentman, D. D., Heavner, M. J., Osborne, D. L. & Vaughan, O. H. Blue starters: brief upward discharges from an intense Arkansas thunderstorm. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 2153–2156 (1996).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Chanrion, O. et al. Profuse activity of blue electrical discharges at the tops of thunderstorms. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 496–503 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Liu, F. et al. Observations of blue discharges associated with negative narrow bipolar events in active deep convection. Geophys. Res. Lett. 45, 2842–2851 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Chou, J.-K. et al. ISUAL-observed blue luminous events: the associated sferics. J. Geophys. Res. 123, 3063–3077 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Le Vine, D. M. Sources of the strongest RF radiation from lightning. J. Geophys. Res. 85, 4091–4095 (1980).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Rison, W. et al. Observations of narrow bipolar events reveal how lightning is initiated in thunderstorms. Nat. Commun. 7, 10721 (2016).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Leal, A. & Rakov, V. A. A study of the context in which compact intracloud discharges occur. Sci. Rep. 9, 12218 (2019).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Fukunishi, H., Takahashi, Y. & Kubota, M. Elves: lightning‐induced transient luminous events in the lower ionosphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 2157–2160 (1996).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Neubert, T. et al. The ASIM mission on the International Space Station. Space Sci. Rev. 215, 26 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Chanrion, O. et al. The Modular Multispectral Imaging Array (MMIA) of the ASIM payload on the International Space Station. Space Sci. Rev. 215, 28 (2019).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Said, R., Cohen, M. B. & Inan, U. S. Highly intense lightning over the oceans: estimated peak currents from global GLD360 observations. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 6905–6915 (2013).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Setvák, M. D. et al. Satellite-observed cold-ring-shaped features atop deep convective clouds. Atmos. Res. 97, 80–96 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Light, T. E., Suszcynsky, D. M., Kirkland, M. W. & Jacobson, A.R. Simulations of lightning optical waveforms as seen through clouds by satellites. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 17103–17114 (2001).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Orville, R. E. & Henderson, R. W. Absolute spectral irradiance measurements of lightning from 375 to 880 nm. J. Geophys. Res. 41, 3181–3187 (1984).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Stenbaek-Nielsen, H. C., Kanmae, T., McHarg, M. G. & Haaland, R. High-speed observations of sprite streamers. Surv. Geophys. 34, 769–795 (2013).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Pérez-Invernón, F. J., Luque, A. & Gordillo-Vázquez, F. J. Modeling the chemical impact and the optical emissions produced by lightning-induced electromagnetic fields in the upper atmosphere: the case of halos and elves triggered by different lightning discharges. J. Geophys. Res. 123, 7615–7641 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Neubert, T. et al. Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes and ionospheric UV emissions generated by lightning. Science 367, 183–186 (2020).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Blaes, P. R., Marshall, R. A. & Inan, U. S. Global occurrence rate of elves and ionospheric heating due to cloud-to-ground lightning. J. Geophys. Res. 121, 699–712 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Riousset, J. A., Pasko, V. P., Krehbiel, P. R., Rison, W. & Stanley, M. A. Modeling of thundercloud screening charges: implications for blue and gigantic jets. J. Geophys. Res. 115, A00E10 (2010).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Liu, N. et al. Upward electrical discharges observed above Tropical Depression Dorian. Nature Commun. 6, 5995 (2015).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    da Silva, C. L. & Pasko, V. P. Physical mechanism of initial breakdown pulses and narrow bipolar events in lightning discharges. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 120, 4989–5009 (2015).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Wu, T. et al. Discharge height of lightning narrow bipolar events. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D05119 (2012).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Soler, S., et al., Blue optical observations of narrow bipolar events by ASIM confirm streamer activity in thunderstorms. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 125, e2020JD032708 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Marshall, R. A., da Silva, C. L. & Pasko, V. P. Elve doublets and compact intracloud discharges. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6112–6119 (2015).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Cooray, V., Cooray, G., Rubinstein, M. & Rachidi, F. Modeling compact intracloud discharge (CID) as a streamer burst. Atmosphere 11, 549–575 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Jacobson, A. R., Light, T. E. L., Hamlin, T. & Nemzek, R. Joint radio and optical observations of the most radio-powerful intracloud lightning discharges. Ann. Geophys. 31, 563–580 (2013).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Bessho, K. et al. An introduction to Himawari-8/9, Japan’s new-generation geostationary meteorological satellites. J. Meteorol. Soc. Jpn. 94, 151–183 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Frey, H. U. et al. The Imager for Sprites and Upper Atmospheric Lightning (ISUAL). J. Geophys. Res. 121, 8134–8145 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Kuo, C. L. et al. Modeling elves observed by FORMOSAT-2 satellite. J. Geophys. Res. 112, A11312 (2007).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Ihaddadene, M. A. & Celestin, S. Determination of sprite streamers altitude based on N2 spectroscopic analysis. J. Geophys. Res. 122, 1000–1014 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Šimek, M. Optical diagnostics of streamer discharges in atmospheric gases. J. Phys. D 47, 463001 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Mende, S. B. et al. D region ionization by lightning-induced electromagnetic pulses. J. Geophys. Res. 110, A11312 (2005).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Hedin, A. E. Extension of the MSIS thermosphere model into the middle and lower atmosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 1159–1172 (1991).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Liu, N. et al. Comparison of results from sprite streamer modelling with spectroscopic measurements by ISUAL instrument on FORMOSAT-2 satellite. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L01101 (2006).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Gueymard, C. A. The SMARTS spectral irradiance model after 25 years: new developments and validation of reference spectra. Sol. Energy 187, 233–253 (2019).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Hudson, R. D. Critical review of ultraviolet photoabsorption cross sections for molecules of astrophysical and aeronomic interest. Rev. Geophys 9, 305–406 (1971).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    SCIAMACHY Data (Molecular Spectroscopy at IUP Bremen, accessed 1 June 2010); https://www.iup.uni-bremen.de/gruppen/molspec/databases/sciamachydata/index.html.

  42. 42.

    Ackerman, M. Ultraviolet solar radiation related to mesospheric processes. In Mesospheric Models and Related Experiments (ed. Fiocco, G.) 149–159 (Springer, 1971).

  43. 43.

    Bogumil, K., Orphal, J. & Burrows, J. P. Temperature dependent absorption cross sections of O3, NO2, and other atmospheric trace gases measured with the SCIAMACHY spectrometer. In Proc. ERS-Envisat Symposium 99 (2001).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

T.N. is principal investigator of the ASIM project, N.Ø. and V.R. are co-investigators. T.N. led the writing of the paper, with comments to the manuscript by all co-authors. T.N. and O.C. led the interpretation of the measurements. O.C. and K.D. converted and plotted cloud measurements to altitude (Fig. 1a). L.H. and O.C. projected events to the cloud tops (Fig. 1b). M.H. plotted photometer data, and O.C. plotted the camera data. O.C. and M.H. performed corrections to the ISS clock. I.L.R. supported the in-flight calibration of the photometers.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Torsten Neubert.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Extended Data Fig. 1 Event 1 on 26 February 2019.

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.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Event 2 on 26 February 2019.

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).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Event 3 on 26 February 2019.

t = 0 ms corresponds to 15:11:06.000 utc. Photometer signals on a log scale around the time of the blue flash that occurs at the onset of the blue jet (Figs. 2, 3).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Event 4 on 26 February 2019.

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).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Event 5 on 26 February 2019.

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).

Extended Data Table 1 Lightning data from GLD360 with ASIM data

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing