Sprites produced by quasi-electrostatic heating and ionization in the lower ionosphere

V. P. Pasko, U. S. Inan, T. F. Bell, Y. N. Taranenko

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Quasi-electrostatic (QE) fields that temporarily exist at high altitudes following the sudden removal (e.g., by a lightning discharge) of thundercloud charge at low altitudes lead to ambient electron heating (up to ∼5 eV average energy), ionization of neutrals, and excitation of optical emissions in the mesosphere/lower ionosphere. Model calculations' predict the possibility of significant (several orders of magnitude) modification of the lower ionospheric conductivity in the form of depletions of electron density due to dissociative attachment to O2 molecules and/or in the form of enhancements of electron density due to breakdown ionization. Results indicate that the optical emission intensities of the 1st positive band of N2 corresponding to fast (∼ 1 ms) removal of 100-300 C of thundercloud charge from 10 km altitude are in good agreement with observations of the upper part ("head" and "hair" [Sentman et al., 1995]) of the sprites. The typical region of brightest optical emission has horizontal and vertical dimensions ∼10 km, centered at altitudes 70 km and is interpreted as the head of the sprite. The model also shows the formation of low intensity glow ("hair") above this region due to the excitation of optical emissions at altitudes ∼ 85 km during ∼ 500 μs at the initial stage of the lightning discharge. Comparison of the optical emission intensities of the 1st and 2nd positive bands of N2, Meinel and 1st negative bands of N2+, and 1st negative band of O2+ demonstrates that the 1st positive band of N2 is the dominating optical emission in the altitude range around ∼70 km, which accounts for the observed red color of sprites, in excellent agreement with recent spectroscopic observations of sprites. Results indicate that the optical emission levels are predominantly defined by the lightning discharge duration and the conductivity properties of the atmosphere/lower ionosphere (i.e., relaxation time of electric field in the conducting medium). The model demonstrates that for low ambient conductivities the lightning discharge duration can be significantly extended with no loss in production of optical emissions. The peak intensity of optical emissions is determined primarily by the value of the removed thundercloud charge and its altitude. The preexisting inhomogeneities in the mesospheric conductivity and the neutral density may contribute to the formation of a vertically striated fine structure of sprites and explain why sprites often repeatedly occur in the same place in the sky as well as their clustering. Comparison of the model results for different types of lightning discharges indicates that positive cloud to ground discharges lead to the largest electric fields and optical emissions at ionospheric altitudes since they are associated with the removal of larger amounts of charge from higher altitudes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number96JA03528
Pages (from-to)4529-4561
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics
Issue numberA3
StatePublished - 1997

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Materials Chemistry


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