May 31, 2013 Red Sprite, Storms and Great Auroras

I've had my worst luck chasing storms this year out of any year I'd imagine. Had really poor sit out decision days too. And some days it's just too crowded to chase anymore in certain areas, so I've let those go too. I did try memorial day on the Smith Center storm(the one the tank/tiv drove into) and that was a big mistake. Screw areas likely to be too packed with chasers now. People that haven't seen it really can't imagine. Since that day I've largely been in a "wait for north" mode. Or wait for July on when less are out. Missed a whole lot the last couple weeks, but I lose my patience too fast in bad crowds anyway and just leave. So no sense driving a few hundred miles only to say to heck with this mess. Anyway point here is this. Luck is an odd thing. Probably to offset the bad chasing luck this year this one moment would do it. Nothing to do with what is cooler or cool to see, just the luck part.

So many great aurora events from surprises now it isn't funny. I have found the best way to see some cool things, is to not expect them. Sounds silly but I mean going out for one thing and the coolest thing caught being something you hadn't had in your mind at all. It has happened a lot. Crazy fireball looking for auroras in badlands once. Fog storm in badlands when out for morning sunrise shoot. Huge firenado at Squaw Creek when there for geese. Bugnado when coming back from Squaw Creek once. Intense rare far south noctilucent clouds here when going out to look at storms for lightning. It's just usually the way I happen upon the more rather rare or odd things I catch.

The space weather Bz went strong south about 7pm. That was after a hit around mid-day from a source NOAA wasn't even aware of at the time. A hard hit. Not high solar wind speeds but a dense stream that didn't fluctuate much in that density, for hours.

All day long, before knowing any of that, I couldn't help but notice just how pure, how clean and crisp the sky was in the dry slot of this upper level low. Eventually with heating from the sun you'll get fair weather cumulus, as it is colder aloft. All around those puffy clouds though, it was shockingly blue. I should have taken some photos. I even thought, this would be a great time to see auroras. After that, Bz went south about 7pm, strongly south like -20 and held there. It was a very long wait till darkness, thinking please stay south.

I thought I'd have to drive east eventually, to get away from the clouds wrapping around the low. But the models were saying I would not, that most of these would vanish with the loss of heating. I knew the stuff out in the slot further would but wasn't that sure the southeast edge of that spiral batch would. But they largely did. Takes a lot to view auroras this far south, especially this time of year with short nights. Plus there are often thunder storms sending off at least cirrus this time of year.

I met a friend over on a gravel road we often use, about a half hour after sunset. I started using my camera to see if it could pick up anything before it was completely dark and sure enough a red pillar showed up in the twilight.

Wasn't long before I noticed flashes to the northeast. I thought, oh heck storms! Storms and auroras. On a night I had expected nothing other than watching some movies on the tube. They were far enough away sprites even briefly crossed my mind. But I know next to nothing about those and have never even tried to catch them. All I knew was these storms were a long ways away and big distance is needed to see sprites.

I'm including this shot for one reason. There was only 10 seconds between when this shot ends and the following one begins. 10 seconds that I decide to turn the camera and quickly start another shot. I'm even using the live view leveler. I was that close to just not pointing the right direction at the right time.

Holy crap the rarest scene I've ever captured and likely ever will. I was standing there just watching when bam, big red sprites "squirting" up into the air in the aurora. I quickly thought, why did they happen over there that far. I then went ecstatic jumping up and down and yelling to my friend to come over there right away, as he was still about a block down the road. He was pretty pumped too, as he had seen it too and wondered if he was seeing things, then happy I saw it too. I called some friends and another friend had seen it from Lincoln while watching the auroras.

That's how far off storms are for sprite viewing. If you look at the city light area to the right of the sprite and left of the storms, you can barely make out some anvils off more storms up there. Those are 200 miles away and the sprites happen above an area even further away. Sprites originate I guess about 50 MILES up. A jet plane at 30,000 feet is 6 miles up. So about 10 times higher. And they can be 45 miles tall.

A lot of sprites have been captured on night sensitive high speed video cameras now. But a photo with auroras...excessively rare. From APOD astronomy picture of the day.... http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130522.html "The image, taken a few days ago above central South Dakota, USA, captured a bright red sprite, and is a candidate for the first color image ever recorded of a sprite and aurora together." They posted that May 22, 2013...9 days before mine. Sprites were first imaged in 1989 accidently and first color photograph in 1994. Recent. But with auroras, evidently it is possible the very first time was a couple freaking weeks before this one of mine. It's that crazy rare.

For things that flash at night like lightning the thing that controls the exposure of it is the aperture opening of the lens and the ISO sensitivity. It's not the shutter duration, as obviously the flash is there and gone fast. What the shutter duration is exposing is the scene. I made the mistake of letting go of the shutter release right after I saw the sprite, only 6.6 seconds into the shot. So the auroras and scene were more underexposed than I'd have liked. I was at 1000 ISO on a Canon 6D and F1.4 on a Sigma 50mm. The 6D is a beast with high ISOs. 1000 ISO would be damn clean had I let the shot go for a bit longer. Having to increase the exposure later a bit just results in more noise than I'd have had if I had done it right. But thank god I was at least at 1000 ISO and F1.4 and pointed that direction. I can't exactly complain lol. Noise removal helps a lot but only so much.

I realized the city lights in my shot had to be Denison IA. I could then draw a line through that in photoshop and see what that sprite was above on radar at the time. Apparently the sprite was caused by a powerful +CG bolt in that stratiform precipitation area just northeast of Rochester MN. Or about 250 miles away from me.

Here is a full size crop.

I e-mailed a bit with Dr Walter Lyons on this, who happens to be the person who took the one linked on APOD. Him and Tom Warmer (who I also e-mailed with) are experts in this sort of field. Walt dug up some info from his colleagues at Duke. First note the time on the graph, 3 hours of data ending at 4:45z or 11:45 central time. I had the shot on the camera down to 11:08:58 for 6.6 seconds to about 11:09:04 when matched to the atomic clock official time. I'm not sure but I think this plot shows all positive lightning strikes and then the bigger cross markers are likely sprite making candidates. I guess 1 in 10 bolts is positive instead of negative. And not all those will make sprites obviously. But note the lonely marker there in southeast MN! There is my sprite maker.

Evidently this is the data for that bolt. It says seconds after 4:09z or seconds after 11:09. That's how specific they can get on these stuff! 1.114 seconds after 11:09. Remember I had my shot figured out to 11:08:58 to 11:09:04. Pretty darn conclusive lol.

Here are some thoughts from Walt on this:

What I find amazing is that this sprite was so bright that it was seen and commented upon by several people. That is a first in my experience.

Also, you imaged the sprite at 1000 ISO.

Our APOD shot was at 800 ISO...BUT we had the IR filter removed from our 600D, which greatly enhances the amount of NIR sprite light captured.

So this must have been an extremely unusual event.

And must have been from a very energetic lightning flash... and from a fairly innocuous looking storm system. (All our cameras were trained on the OK storm, naturally, which must have been producing tons of sprites.)

Then....with all analysis in....

So the sprite parent +CG (SP+CG) struck northeast of Rochester, MN. Right in the area of the secondary reflectivity max of the trailing stratiform. A classic location.

60kA / 260 C km are not overly impressive for a peak current/ impulse charge moment change, though. So, maybe the idea that the sky was so clear that it enhanced the sprite's contrast with the background is in play. Still, multiple people independently reporting the same sprite with the naked eye is a first to my knowledge.

The SP+CG was ~415 km from the camera (guessing the location), which is within the ideal range (300-500 km) for this kind of capture.

Some good info in there. Thanks Walt! Also thanks to Gaopeng Lu getting the data!

Needless to say I was quite content already, this early on lol. Here's some more thoughts on rarity. Just getting auroras with thunderstorms is really hard. Think about why. Auroras don't exactly like to come south to where storms are more common. When storms happen north, guess what time of year that is...summer. There's little to no actual night/darkness then in the northern locations where auroras happen more often. That's a big factor right there. Also when you have storms they aren't often like these and are going to be accompanied by a lot more clouds. Just getting auroras with storms is a big big task. Photographing sprites at any point...yeah. The guys that do that are probably pretty good at it now. The storms have to be sooo far away. So far you really can't even see where they are visually. I guess this is why they often use mountains and higher elevations. Sounds like a fun challenge though. But to do it with an aurora display, eh evidently the planets must align. It's that crazy really but toss in just one more factor on this one. There was ONE according to their data. Perhaps there was another random one later, but in those 3 hours it shows one.

Not sprites in the above image but light pillars! These clouds were frozen obviously and the ice crystals happened to be making some light pillars.

Evan and Sarah showed up now and my friend Bob had gone home. The aurora show was just getting started now. Finally Evan gets to see a good show. Not an extreme event but a good one. If only they'd have stayed longer, as he'd have seen it even better later after the moon was up.

I've been wanting a really good aurora event at this barn. I'd like an extreme class storm and overhead auroras but this will work.

Kinda cool.

After sort of using up the barn scene I thought about the river. I needed to redo this as my 2004 shots were pretty bad. I came here twice this night and both times the auroras were at their weakest during the time there.

Red wall trying to sneak up on us behind a batch of clouds.

Towards the end of the first time at the river it seemed we were getting a "red wall" but the same time a new batch of clouds was fanning around in front of it. We race back over to the barn to see the whole sky. The drive there I was like, damn the green is really bright right now. Then could see how the red was coming through those clouds up there. Ug red wall with a stupid batch of clouds!

14mm on for an ultrawide view. 1:15 a.m. now.

Really annoyed with our cloud placement I tried to get the crappy end of the Milky Way to show in the frame. You can see it going into the auroras. The better parts of the Milky Way would be towards the southeastern horizon right now. Right towards Omaha's light pollution. It was super duper clear above the bit of lower level moisture, so not surprised some airglow was showing in the shots too. Red, green, violet auroras, light pillars, green airglow and a freaking red sprite all in the same night. Moon-lit ops would also come into play as the half moon would rise around 2 a.m.

My friend Brett drove a few miles east on I80 here. I was tempted to do that too, as it would remove the small cloud worries pretty quickly. I'm lucky I backed off that thought. I thought, what do I miss while driving, as outbursts can be short lived. First off I'd have most certainly missed the sprite. I thought after that, thank god I didn't start driving. Well just before 2 a.m. I started to make that drive. I drove like 5 miles east and turned right back around and came back to where I was. I thought I'll be happy with as much clearness as I have. Well it paid off again. The best pillar display was just getting started. It didn't give a rats ass the half moon was now up either.

Don't ever sit out a possible event just because of the moon phase and position. A bright half moon was up to the east right now. Pillars were plain as day fanning around shining up into the sky.

The lenses used most were the Sigma 50mm at F1.4 and the Samyang 24mm at F1.4. The ultrawides were from the Samyang 14mm at F2.8. ISO between 400 and 2000 mostly. Usually 1250 I think. The pillars were seldom what I'd call bright. This last bit was the brightest. Can't underestimate the usefulness of F1.4 on these things. If things were bright, heck 800 ISO at F3.5 works well. It was a really good display though and it went from twilight to twilight, all night long.