Thomas Ashcraft/Vimeo

It lasted only a millisecond but was as wide as 26 San Franciscos.

The thing that appeared over La Junta, Colorado, lasted only a millisecond but is clear on slowed video: a glowing sky-discus so massive it could’ve satiated all the doughnut lust of Homer Simpson.

Is this the universe’s way of telling us we all deserve a coffee break? The answer is less spooky, but still weird. The flickering ring recorded by Thomas Ashcraft on June 8 was an ELVE, the necessarily shortened name for Emissions of Light and Very Low Frequency Perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources. ELVEs are the ghostly, ephemeral byproducts of thunderstorms, and the average person can generally go through life without seeing a single one.

NOAA

As usual, Tony Phillips of Spaceweather has the goods on these phenomena:

First seen by cameras on the space shuttle in 1990, ELVEs appear when a pulse of electromagnetic radiation from lightning propagates up toward space and hits the base of Earth’s ionosphere. A faint ring of light marks the broad “spot” where the EMP hits….

ELVEs are elusive—and that’s an understatement. Blinking in and out of existence in only 1/1000th of a second, they are completely invisible to the human eye. For comparison, red sprites tend to last for hundredths of a second and regular lightning can scintillate for a second or more. Their brevity explains why ELVEs are a more recent discovery than other lightning-related phenomenon.

Ashcraft believes this particular ELVE had a diameter of about 186 miles, making it wider than more than two-dozen San Franciscos. It was accompanied by a red sprite, as ELVEs often are, which in this video appears as a transient, electric jellyfish immediately after the doughnut.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a wallet full of Yen bills.
    Life

    Japan’s Lost-and-Found System Is Insanely Good

    If you misplace your phone or wallet in Tokyo, chances are very good that you’ll get it back. Here’s why.

  2. Design

    How We Map Epidemics

    Cartographers are mapping the coronavirus in more sophisticated ways than past epidemics. But visualizing outbreaks dates back to cholera and yellow fever.

  3. photo: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi
    Environment

    What Abu Dhabi’s City of the Future Looks Like Now

    At the UN’s World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, attendees toured Masdar City, the master-planned eco-complex designed to show off the UAE’s commitment to sustainability.

  4. photo: An elderly resident of a village in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.
    Life

    In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

    Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

  5. An aisle in a grocery store
    Equity

    It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality

    A new study suggests that America’s great nutritional divide goes deeper than the problem of food access within cities.

×