Flashy phenomena – emissions of light and very-low-frequency perturbations due to electromagnetic pulse sources

Flashy phenomena – emissions of light and very-low-frequency perturbations due to electromagnetic pulse sources

Chana Freiman

High above the clouds–where Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins–scientists have discovered elves*. These are not the mythical creatures of fairy-tale fame, says atmospheric scientist Walter Lyons, but rather mysterious flashes of red light. Lyons helped discover the fiery phenomena while observing thunderstorms in the skies surrounding Yucca Ridge, Colorado.

“When lightning strikes the ground,” he explains, “it gives off tremendous amounts of energy,” The energy we see is in the form of light. But some of lightning’s energy is in the form of radio waves. When this invisible energy travels to the upper atmosphere, it can excite particles of gas, making them glow.

Because the glow lasts only a thousandth of a second, Lyons and his colleagues had to use light meters and video cameras to capture the elves on film. “You can’t see them [with the naked eye] because they disappear so fast,” he explains. In fact, elves disappear faster than lightning (which lasts a second or more).

Now scientists want to find out whether atmospheric elves, like some fairy-tale elves, might cause trouble. For instance: Could the elves disable satellites, or even the space shuttle? Can the energy given off by elves alter the chemical balance of the atmosphere? Would such atmospheric changes increase the effects of global warming or ozone depletion? Lyons and his colleagues are scanning the skies to find out.

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