Jan 27, 2020
Seeing one blue jet is rare. Photographer Matthew Griffiths just caught several of them over the Big Bend National Park in Texas. "This is by far the best," he says:

Above: A blue jet emerges from a thunderhead in Big Bend National Park, photographed by Matthew Griffiths in Marfa, Texas.

Griffiths is an amateur photographer, primarily interesting in wildlife and the Milky Way. "On July 28th, I was starting a five night West Texas road trip to capture the Milky Way," he says. "But with thunderstorms storms in the distance I decided to try for red sprites instead."

He ended up photographing the sprite's elusive blue cousin. First recorded by cameras on the space shuttle in 1989, blue jets are part of a growing menagerie of cloudtop "transient luminous events." Sprites, ELVES and green ghosts are other examples. They are all elusive, but blue jets may be the hardest to catch.

"We're not sure why ground-based observers see them so rarely," says Oscar van der Velde of the Lightning Research Group at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. "It might have something to do with their blue color. Earth's atmosphere naturally scatters blue light, which makes them harder to see. Blue jets might be more common than we think."

A rookie mistake might have helped Griffiths. "This is only my second time trying for sprites. I might have aimed my camera too close to the cloud tops where bright lightning washed out the sprites; in fact, I couldn't find any sprites in my photos. But I think my camera angle was just right for catching the bright blue jet."

Above: A zoomed-in view showing the jet's sharp lance-like core and a diffuse fan of electric-blue overhead.

Blue jets might look like lightning, but they are not the same. Normal lightning carves a scorching-hot path through the atmosphere, heating the air to 30,000 degrees Celsius. Blue jets are made of cold plasma akin to gas inside a flourescent light bulb. You could touch one with your hand and it might not hurt.

A streak of blue jet lightning captured by pilot and photographer Thijs Bors in the Northern Territory, Australia, during a thunderstorm. Photo credit: Thijs Bors

And, of course, they go up instead of down. Photos taken from the International Space Station (ISS) show that blue jets reach astonishing altitudes as high as 170,000 feet. This is high enough to touch the ionosphere, forming a new and poorly understood branch of Earth's global electrical circuit.

"Also," says van der Velde, "there can be considerable production of NOx and ozone by these discharges, potentially affecting the chemistry of the upper atmosphere."

Clearly, it is important to study blue jets. Photographers, now you know where to look.

See: https://spaceweather.com

Wow, the close up of the blue jet of cold plasma is quite unbelievable. It's also mind boggling to realize that these blue jets can reach an altitude of 170,000 feet into the ionosphere. We also now understand that these jets produce NOx and ozone, the latter being so critical the atmosphere in protecting us and all living things from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun and thus reducing the number of skin cancers.
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