On May 13th, my daughter and I went out to chase storms that were forming over the Black Hills. A nice cluster of storms moved over Sturgis, South Dakota (home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally), and we filmed some close flashes as the storms passed over us. We then followed the cluster toward Bear Butte which is an isolated uplifted hill on the east side of the Black Hills, northeast of Sturgis.
Our primary target decayed and so we focused on new storms that had formed over the Black Hills and were moving directly toward us. They put down some nice CGs, and as they reached us, I repositioned to have Bear Butte in my field of view. A few minutes later we were treated to two spectacular CG lightning flashes directly in front of us and close. They were very bright and very loud. I suspected they were +CGs given their long duration continuing current and exceptional brightness. The Black Hills area and Northern High Plains for that matter exhibits an atypically high percentage of +CG flashes, and trying to understand and explain this anomoly was part of a study I was involved in during the UPLIGHTS research campaign.
For the first flash, I had my infrared triggered cameras set to f/8 and ISO100 in aperture priority mode. Although this setting is ideal for the average CG flash between 5-15 km, the LCD image review showed significant saturation. I reset the aperture to f/11 and the second flash was still somewhat saturated.
Below is the image for the first flash. You will notice there is two CG channels, one in front of Bear Butte and one beyond.
National Lightning Detection Data provided by Vaisala, Inc. indicated the closer CG was in fact positive (electrons traveled upward along the channel) with an impressive 159.6 kA estimated peak current. It struck 2.5 km away. NLDN data indicated the second channel was also a positive CG 12.6 km away and had an estimated peak current of 58.4 kA.
The second flash which is shown below only had one CG termination point.
NLDN data indicated it was a +CG, 2.2 km away with a peak current of 143.1 kA.
Positive CG flashes tend to exhibit higher peak current compared to negative CGs on average and usually do not have multiple return strokes. If my memory serves, I believe the latest published scientific literature has the average peak current for -CGs around 30 kA and 50 kA for +CGs. So these flashes were exceptionally strong. Unlike what we were taught in school, they DO NOT always originate from the top of a thunderstorm or anvil area and DO NOT always strike away from the main storm and rain area. It all depends on where the charge regions form, and in the Northern High Plains, we see a lot of storms with inverted charge regions, which leads to more +CGs. In the near future, I will be adding an education section on my blog which explains this in more detail.
Below is video of the two flashes captured on a Panasonic HPX-170 at 1280x720p60 which uses a global shutter (no annoying rolling shutter artifacts). In the slow playback you will see an artifact on the frame preceding the return stroke. This is saturating brightness bleed over from the subsequent return stroke that occurs in the following frame. After the CCD records a frame, the voltage values from each photosite (which corresponds to each pixel in the image) are shifted to an adjacent storage photosite that is covered. The voltage is then read out from the covered storage photosites while the next exposure is taking place in the non-covered photosites. If the non-covered photosites experience a saturating brightness, some of the voltage can bleed over into the adjacent storage photosites during their readout adding a voltage increase to their recorded values. Since the covered photosites are readout row by row with the data shifting up the CCD array to higher covered photosites after each row is read, the artifact will usually show up lower in the image as the “image data” from the previous frame has moved up when the saturating brightness occurs. These artifacts are often misidentified as attempted leaders that occur close to the camera, when in fact they are only “ghost images” of the bright return stroke channel that occurs in the subsequent frame but shows up on the previous frame (forward in time…que Twilight Zone music.)
You will also notice the integrated recoil leader activity associated with descending positive leaders in the distant second CG during the first flash. This integrated recoil leader activity is a clear identifying characteristic of positive leaders, and I explain this in the previous post.
Below are some additional images from flashes we captured before the storm moved over Bear Butte.
Insight gained from the analysis of high-speed camera observations and correlated electric field measurements has allowed for lightning leader polarity classification in some standard-speed video and still image recordings. To date, recoil leaders appear to be solely associated with positive leader development and therefore provide a unique signature that can be identified in standard-speed video recordings (60 ips). A majority of recoil leaders that form on positive leader branches tend to fade/decay without connecting to a main luminous channel, and their bipolar/bidirectional development can only be seen at recording rates greater than 5,000 ips. Even though their duration is typically less than 500 µs, their intense brightness will record well on standard-speed video camera sensors. During a single standard-speed video image exposure of 17 ms, numerous recoil leaders may form. If any of the recoil leaders that form during the long exposure do not connect with a main luminous channel their integrated luminosity traces will appear detached from a main channel. In essence, they appear as floating leader segments. Furthermore, the positive end of the recoil leaders, upon arrival at the positive leader tip, tend to illuminate a short forked segment. This forked segment also records clearly on standard-speed exposures and occasionally digital still images.
The video segment below shows the development of an upward positive leader recorded at 7,207 ips with a high-speed camera as well as with a standard-speed video camera (60 ips). The high-speed recording resulted in 135 µs exposures (139 µs image intervals) and 17 ms exposures for the standard-speed recording. A total of 122 high-speed images were recorded during each standard-speed video exposure. The standard-speed video image is, therefore, an integration of the activity recorded by the high-speed camera during the 17 ms exposure. Annotations on the standard-speed video show the features that identify the leader as positive due to the recoil leader production.
The following is an integrated high-speed video segment that corresponds in time to a single standard-speed video image from the previously shown upward flash. The detached recoil leaders are clearly visible in both images.
Here are more standard-speed video images showing recoil leader development during upward positive leader propagation.
The decreased sensitivity of digital still camera sensors compared to video sensors and the longer exposure times used at night (i.e., 20 s) results in recoil leaders recording as faint leader segments. Below is a video showing positive leader development captured at 1,000 ips. Three different positive leaders of differing intensity show the spectrum of behavior modes exhibited by positive leaders. The weak positive leader (top) was weakly luminous, highly branched and produced numerous recoil leaders. The middle positive leader was brighter and only branched a few times near the end of the recording and produced fewer recoil leaders. The bright positive leader branch at the bottom did not branch and did not produce any recoil leaders.
The image of this event below shows how the spectrum of positive leader development appears when captured by a digital still camera. The image was captured using ISO 100, f/6.3 and a 20 s long exposure. Although the recoil leaders where intensely bright in the high-speed video, their short duration and the decreased ISO sensitivity of the digital still camera results in them appearing faint in the upper portion of the image. The non-branched lower leader channel remained brightly luminous during its entire development and this recorded as a brightly luminous leader on the still image.
Below are additional examples of positive leader development associated with +CG flashes as captured by digital still camera. The recoil leader producing positive leader branches are the primary indicator of leader positive polarity.
Negative leaders do not exhibit similar recoil leader behavior as shown in a related post.
There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter about an unusual aurora phenomenon. This phenomenon takes on a deviant appearance from typical aurora so understandably many have asked what is going on. The first time I heard about it on Twitter, it was referred to as a “Proton Arc” and explained to be caused by collision, excitation and relaxation of oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our atmosphere by high energy protons rather than the much more common high energy electrons that make it down into our atmosphere. At least when viewed from the mid-latitudes it tends to be offset to the east or west from the main aurora activity and extend higher in the sky. It also tended to be a pinkish, purplish hue and rather elongated and straight.
I believe I may have seen this once from Rapid City, South Dakota on the night of Sep 8, 2015 (see image below).
This picture was taken about an hour after I arrived home from photographing a mild aurora event in western South Dakota. An hour earlier I captured the following image away from the city lights. However, clouds moved in so I drove home only to see the vertical pink columns from my driveway, which were well west of the aurora I filmed earlier.
This surprisingly not so rare phenomenon is now referred to as “Steve” which comes from the 2006 movie “Over The Hedge” where the characters humorously name an unknown phenomenon “Steve.” There is even a Wiki page summarizing the discovery and ongoing investigation into Steve which now stands for “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement” due to some creative backronym efforts.
Last year, before Steve had his official name and was frequently referred to as a proton arc, I met an atmospheric scientist that has studied aurora and other upper atmosphere phenomenon in Antarctica. Dr. John French has worked with the Australian Antarctic Division for over 27 years and studied pulsating aurora while stationed at Macuarie Island (a subantarctic island in the Southern Ocean about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica). I asked him about this phenomenon, and he gave me a possible explanation. I thought I would share it and hopefully encourage discussion as to whether this might be what is causing “Steve” to appear.
“As for electrons, protons are also channeled down magnetic field lines (but with +ve charge spiral the opposite direction to electrons). However because protons are more massive than electrons it is harder to accelerate them to speeds that penetrate down far enough into the atmosphere and protons comprise only a few percent of the excitation process for oxygen and nitrogen. Protons that do enter the top of the atmosphere with enough energy are very efficient at stripping electrons from neutral atoms (ionizing the O or N atom and releasing its electron) and these secondary electrons then produce aurora in the same way as direct electron impact. In this case the O 557, O 630 or N2 428 nm emissions would be indistinguishable from electron aurora. However…in another twist the proton itself can acquire the electron from another atom during the collision (known as charge exchange) and as an excited hydrogen atom emits lines in the hydrogen Balmer series (410nm, 434nm, 486nm, and 656nm) which produces the reddy-purply colour… . Also, as this is now a neutral atom, it is no longer influenced by the magnetic field so the cloud of protons that undergo this process just continue in the direction they were traveling before the charge exchange – creating the long straight columnar streak.”
In the time that has passed since Dr. French’s shared his possible explanation with me, scientific instrumentation has sampled Steve and initial analysis of the data showed an area of increased temperatures and velocity. The talk given by Dr. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary is available online and is very interesting (watch from 1:08 through 1:27). He suggests that Steve is not related to proton aurora, but rather something else that has yet to be understood.
I look forward to hearing more from the Swarm satellite data analysis, and hopefully we will soon, through the well established scientific process in collaboration with citizen scientists (or citizen sensors as Dr. Donovan calls them), better understand this interesting sight in the night sky.
Here are some more links to information and stories about Steve and the groups that have photographed him.
On the evening of 16 July 2012, a weak cluster of storms moved north over Rapid City, South Dakota. A single visible rainshaft formed on the leading edge of the approaching development. At the time of the rainshaft formation, there was no lightning activity along the leading edge. However, lightning flashes were visible to the distant south in the more active trailing portion of the storms. At 04:20:35, (17 July 2012) UT two digital still cameras captured a ground flash near the rainshaft. This was the first visible flash along the leading edge. One camera, a Canon 5D2 Mark III, captured the image using a 16 mm lens set at f/2.8 using ISO 800 and an exposure time of 11 sec. This camera was capturing continuous 11 sec exposures for a timelapse sequence. A second camera, a Canon 7D, captured the image using a 20 mm lens set at f/8 using ISO 100 and an exposure time of 30 sec.
The captured images, which show the entire flash due to the long exposure times, showed a unique feature that I have not seen previously with any flash images that I have captured. The visible channels below cloud base show that there was a main vertical channel that connected with ground and a branch that propagated somewhat horizontally to the left and did not connect with ground. This second branch appeared to propagate toward the rainshaft and upon entering the rain, spread out vertically in both directions while branching extensively. The change in propagation direction and increase in branching appears isolated to inside the rainshaft, and is not apparent on any other channel segments.
An analysis of National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) data revealed the NLDN recorded a corresponding 6.8 kA estimated peak current, negative cloud to ground stroke (-CG) 8 km southwest of the cameras. This location correlated in both time and direction, and all other preceding NLDN-indicated flash activity was south of the area by 20 km.
I believe that this image provides evidence that a negative leader branch propagated into a positively charged rainshaft that served as a positive potential well favorable for negative leader propagation (Coleman et al., 2003 and Coleman et al., 2008).
Coleman, L. M., T. C. Marshall, M. Stolzenburg, T. Hamlin, P. R. Krehbiel, W. Rison, and R. J. Thomas (2003), Effects of charge and electrostatic potential on lightning propagation, J. Geophys. Res., 108(D9), 4298, doi:10.1029/2002JD002718.
Coleman, L. M., M. Stolzenburg, T. C. Marshall, and M. Stanley (2008), Horizontal lightning propagation, preliminary breakdown, and electric potential in New Mexico thunderstorms, J. Geophys. Res., 113, D09208, doi:10.1029/2007JD009459.
On the night of 12 Apr 2012, the Bay Area of California experienced a storm that literally lit up the skies with upward lightning. Some iconic photographs and video were taken during this event which provided evidence that numerous tall objects developed upward leaders in response to nearby flashes. The foremost images that illustrated what happened that night were taken by Phil McGrew. He had his Canon 5D Mark III camera running continuously using 20 sec exposures. During two of these exposures, his camera captured upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge and additional structures on the east side of the Bay. For each of the two photographs that he posted, it is likely that all the upward leaders developed during the same flash that probably lasted less than one second. He was located in a tall building on the east side of San Francisco downtown looking east along the Bay Bridge.
Below are embedding links as provided by Phil’s Flickr page where he has posted two images. Click on the images to go to his Flickr page. The exif data on his Flickr page indicates that the first of the two images was taken at 8:38:29 pm PDT using ISO 100, f/10, 20 sec exposure and a 28 mm lens. In this image there appears to be 5 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 2 upward leaders from two separate structures on the east side of the bay (likely in the Oakland area).
Again based on the exif data, the second image that Phil captured was at 8:42:41 pm PDT (4 min and 12 sec later) and used the same camera settings. This image (which has rightfully received international acclaim) appears to show 6 upward leaders from the Bay Bridge structure and 4 additional leaders beyond the Bay Bridge likely from structures on the east side of the bay.
Phil’s photographs indicate they were separated by 4 min and 12 sec. Not know the time accuracy of Phil’s camera, we compared the indicated times and time difference between the two images with National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) data. Based on previous research findings, we suspected that these upward leaders were triggered by positive ground flashes (+CG) within 50 km of the Bay Bridge. Two very large estimated peak current +CG strokes were recorded at 3:39:59.425 and 3:44:12.332 pm PDT. They had estimated peak currents of +129.8 kA and +270.7 kA respectively and were separated by 4 min and 12.907 sec. There was a +27.8 kA stroke at 03:39:22.773 (37 min earlier of the first big +CG) and 2 -CG strokes at 03:40:32.843 and 03:42:21.957 fell within the time spaning the two large +CGs.
Below are GIS plots of the NLDN indicated return strokes and cloud events. The first figure shows the event location, event type by symbol (see legend) and estimated peak current based on relative symbol size. Notice the size of the +CG return stroke symbols relative to the other events.
The next figure shows the NLDN event locations and their times.
The last figure shows the NLDN events and a label of the estimated peak current.
We suspect that the upward leaders that developed from the Bay Bridge were positive polarity and developed following the large estimated peak current positive cloud-to-ground return strokes that occurred inside the Bay. These are examples of lightning triggered upward lightning in which the field change resulting from a preceding flash causes the development of upward leaders from nearby tall objects.
There were a number of other images from other people that showed upward leaders from tall objects during this same night and the other locations included the Golden Gate Bridge and tall buildings in Oakland. We suspect that these upward leaders also developed during the same triggering flashes that caused the upward leaders to develop from the Bay Bridge.
Over the past six years my research colleagues and I have filmed lightning using high-speed digital cameras. In total we have captured 776 naturally occurring lightning flashes with recording speeds as high as 100,000 images per second. 158 of these flashes were cloud flashes in which some of the lightning leaders propagated outside of the clouds. 372 of theses flashes were negative cloud-to-ground flashes (-CG) and 206 were positive cloud-to-ground flashes (+CG). 41 of the flashes were upward flashes originating from tall towers in Rapid City.
During this last summer, we pursued a storm into the Badlands of South Dakota. The Badlands are a beautiful area of erosion in the plains creating incredibly photogenic landscapes, and it is personally one of my favorite places to photograph lightning. On this particular day, I was filming from the Pinnacles Overlook looking east across a road. I filmed a number of flashes, but during one instance I not only captured a +CG flash, I also captured a rare wild tourist roaming the South Dakota plains. Because I film from a highly modified truck with cameras and gadgets sticking out of it, he was a bit curious by the appearance of my vehicle. However, he was clearly more interested in getting to the next viewpoint and quickly scurried off never to be seen again. Here is the video…
Below is a video on the creation of Lichtenberg figures. Interesting is the subsequent bright short discharges that continue to take place after the initial discharge. These seem similar in appearance to recoil leaders, which form on positive leaders branches that become cutoff from a main channel. Compare the two videos below.
YouTube video of Lichtenberg creation.
Upward lightning (upward positive leaders) from a tower filmed at 9,000 images per second.