Sprites and lightning take sky by storm over major Hurricane Matthew

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By Jonathan Belles for Weather.com

As major hurricane Matthew rapidly intensified into a Category 5 just north of Colombia, something peculiar was lighting up the skies far above Matthew's devastating winds and gargantuan waves. Lightning was electrifying the skies for hundreds of miles around Matthew's eyewall and eastern feederbands.

But this wasn't entirely the normal lightning that you think of that zig-zags its way to the ground. Although lightning was also striking the Caribbean Sea below, there were also upper atmospheric lightning strikes, called sprites, exploding above the high thunderstorm cloud tops below.

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What Are Sprites?

According to the glossary of the American Meteorological Society, sprites are usually weak bursts of energy that are released directly over an active thunderstorm cloud with cloud-to-ground lightning below. Sprites also go by a few other names in early research on the topic, such as upward lightning and cloud-to-stratospheric lightning.

Sprites are generally colored red, but can appear blue similar to the color of some lightning strikes closer to the cloud. Some sprites can reach 55 miles into the atmosphere.

Sprites are usually very quick, lasting only a few milliseconds and are hard to capture in photography.

For that fact alone, sprites are fairly rare sights.

Why Are These Sprites Extra Special?

These sprites, all 28 of them, were captured above a Category 5 Hurricane in the Caribbean that was in the process of rapidly intensifying. These sprites were captured during the late evening and early morning hours of September 30 and October 1.

(FORECAST: Hurricane Matthew Heads Toward Jamaica, Haiti)

The American Meteorological Society notes that "Current evidence strongly suggests that sprites preferentially occur in decaying portions of thunderstorms and are correlated with large positive cloud-to-ground flashes."

This makes some sense in relation to Hurricane Matthew. During the early and mid-morning hours on October 1, Matthew ended its rapid intensification phase and clouds would have begun to come down slightly in height and thus decay some.

You can see some of this lightning surrounding Matthew in an overnight satellite shot along with the city lights of South America.

Lightning is not generally common in tropical cyclones, but becomes more common in quickly or rapidly intensifying hurricanes like Hurricane Matthew. During the morning hours of October 1, Matthew was ending a rapid intensification phase north of Colombia.

You can see some of that lightning via the radar from Curaçao below:

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