Science behind sprites

Nov 042010
Authors: Allison Sylte

They dance across the night sky, waltzing miles above the tops of thunderclouds –– phantom pillars of red light that disappear in the blink of an eye. Referred to as “sprites,” these unique weather phenomena were once a mystery to the meteorological community.

Walter Lyons, the former president of the American Meteorological Society and TV weatherman, has made it his life’s work to find out exactly what sprites are.

“I think that it’s a cognitive defect. I’m not interested in meteorology because I chose to be,” Lyons said. “It’s just something that I was born with and something that has consumed my life ever since.”

Lyons gave an hour-long presentation on Thursday morning at the United Methodist Church to a large group of members of the Colorado State University Women’s Association, CSUWA. During the presentation, he answered questions from audience members and showed “The 100 Year Hunt for
the Red Sprite,” a film that he had taken part in writing and narrating.

“I think it’s important to study sprites partially because it’s preventing a sort of World War III,” Lyons said jokingly. “Just imagine if the U.S. government saw a flash of light above, say, North Korea. They would be a bit nervous. Studying this phenomenon
allows us to attach a rational solution to what’s going on above us that might be a bit freaky to the untrained eye.”

According to Lyons, sprites are caused when lightening transfers a huge amount of positive electrical charge into the atmosphere, creating a giant spark. Sprites stretch for as long as 45 miles and occur all over the world –– possibly interfering with the electric grid and satellite transmissions. Sprites have even been spotted directly above the Kennedy Space Center.

“We probably won’t know what the real importance of sprites is until 100 years from now,” Lyons said. “But they’re something that’s new and cutting edge and, right now, really interesting to learn about.”

Lyons has his own weather lab, the Yucca Ridge Field Station northeast of Fort Collins. Here, even though he has been technically retired for three years, he conducts research into sprites and other weather phenomena. He has been working in the field of meteorology since 1965 and has done research for NASA, the National Weather Service, and the Air Force.

“I thought that it was quite interesting to see his presentation and to really learn a lot about something that I’d never heard of before,” said Joan Vierhout, a CSUWA member.

The CSUWA is a group of women affiliated with CSU who meet throughout the year to participate in fundraising opportunities for CSU students, as well as to host different speakers.

“I think that it’s important for people to be interested in and to care about science because we’re the people who are creating the solutions for a better future,” Lyons said. “And I love that I get to do it, because it’s like driving down a highway and turning a corner. You never know what new, interesting things you’re going to learn about.”

_Outdoor Life Beat Reporter Allison Sylte can be reached at

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