Dependence of positive and negative sprite morphology on lightning characteristics and upper atmospheric ambient conditions

Jianqi Qin, Sebastien Celestin, Victor P. Pasko

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52 Scopus citations


Carrot sprites, exhibiting both upward and downward propagating streamers, and columniform sprites, characterized by predominantly vertical downward streamers, represent two distinct morphological classes of lightning-driven transient luminous events in the upper atmosphere. It is found that positive cloud-to-ground lightning discharges (+CGs) associated with large charge moment changes (QhQ) tend to produce carrot sprites with the presence of a mesospheric region where the electric field exceeds the value 0.8Ek and persists for >∼2 ms, whereas those associated with small Qh Q are only able to produce columniform sprites. Columniform sprites may also appear in the periphery of a sprite halo produced by +CGs associated with large QhQ. For a sufficiently large QhQ, the time dynamics of the QhQ determines the specific shape of the carrot sprites. In the case when the sufficiently large QhQ is produced mainly by an impulsive return stroke, strong electric field is produced at high altitudes and manifests as a bright halo, and the corresponding conductivity enhancement lowers/enhances the probability of streamer initiation inside/below the sprite halo. A more impulsive return stroke leads to a more significant conductivity enhancement (i.e., a brighter halo). This conductivity enhancement also leads to fast decay and termination of the upper diffuse region of carrot sprites because it effectively screens out the electric field at high altitudes. On the contrary, if the sufficiently large QhQ is produced by a weak return stroke (i.e., a dim halo) accompanied by intense continuing current, the lightning-induced electric field at high altitudes persists at a level that is comparable to Ek, and therefore an extensive upper diffuse region can develop. Furthermore, we demonstrate that 'negative sprites' (produced by -CGs) should be necessarily carrot sprites and most likely accompanied by a detectable halo, since the initiation of upward positive streamers is always easier than that of downward negative streamers, and -CGs are usually associated with impulsive return stroke with no continuing current. We also conjecture that in some cases, fast decaying single-headed upward positive streamers produced by -CGs may appear as bright spots/patches. We show that the threshold charge moment changes of positive and negative sprites are, respectively, ~320 and ~500 C km under typical nighttime conditions assumed in this study. These different initiation thresholds, along with the different applied electric field required for stable propagation of positive and negative streamers and the fact that +CGs much more frequently produce large charge moment changes, represent three major factors in the polarity asymmetry of +CGs and -CGs in producing sprite streamers. We further demonstrate that lower mesospheric ambient conductivity leads to smaller threshold charge moment change required for the production of carrot sprites. We suggest that geographical and temporal conductivity variations in the lower ionosphere documented in earlier studies, along with the seasonal and inter-annual variations of thunderstorm activity that lead to different lightning characteristics in the troposphere, account for the different morphological features of sprites observed in different observation campaigns. Key PointsLightning characteristics and sprite morphology are closely relatedUpper atmospheric ambient conditions significantly affect sprite morphologyNegative sprites are necessarily carrot sprites produced by large charge moment

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2623-2638
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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