Weird Atmospheric Phenomena | High-Altitude Science

by | Jan 26, 2016 | Cool Stuff

The atmosphere. You look straight through it more often than not. You know our atmosphere does a lot of important things – but our atmosphere does a lot more than protect us from harmful rays and space debris. Thanks to the five deep layers of atmosphere that surround our planet, we are able to enjoy a wide variety of atmospheric phenomena. You are probably familiar with common occurrences like rainbows and lightning, but our atmosphere has all kinds of crazy tricks up its sleeve. Love high-altitude science? You’ve come to the right place. Check out a few of the cool phenomena our atmosphere can cause.

Red Sprites high-altitude scienceSprites

Sprites are electromagnetic bursts that create a luminous flash directly above an active thunderstorm. These red flashes coincide directly with lightning that extends below. So why haven’t we seen them? Since they occur above active storms, the thick cloud cover makes catching a glimpse pretty tough.


Blue Jet high-altitude scienceBlue Jets

Blue jets, similar to sprites, occur above active thunderstorms. However, instead of red luminous flashes, blue jets resemble narrow cones that fan out above the active core regions of thunderstorms.



Ball Lightning high-altitude scienceBall Lightning

Ball lightning is rare, but is has been known to happen during electrical storms. As the name implies, it is simply a fiery ball of lightning that collects in the sky and can last for more than a second.



St Elmo high-altitude scienceSt. Elmo’s Fire

Unlike the previous phenomena, St. Elmo’s fire occurs lower in the atmosphere in connection with grounded objects. The phenomenon occurs when pointed objects in an electric field (such as a volcanic eruption or a storm) emit a luminous plasma created by an electrical discharge called a corona discharge. St. Elmo’s fire is often blue or purple in color and is said to appear on anything from lightning rods to the horns of cattle.


Green Flash high-altitude scienceGreen Flash

You may have heard of the green flash from movies or books. While there is a lot of myth and superstition surrounding the green flash, it’s actually a real optical phenomenon. When the sun is rising or setting, a green flash can appear because the atmosphere acts as a prism, separating the light into different colors


Halo high-altitude scienceHalos

A halo is a ring of light that occurs around the sun when the sunlight interacts with ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Halos can also occur around the moon. These halos often have multicolored properties since the ice crystals act as prisms.


Sun Dog high-altitude scienceSun Dogs

Also known as “mock suns”, sun dogs sometimes occur alongside halos. Sun dogs are two brightly colored patches of light that appear on either side of the sun. These occur when plate-shaped ice crystals high in the sky drift downward, refracting the light horizontally. The larger the ice crystal plates, the brighter and larger the sun dogs may be.

Do you love high-altitude science?

The atmosphere is amazing for so many reasons. Want to learn more about our atmosphere? Join our virtual high-altitude science experiment and launch a weather balloon to space… right from your computer.