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. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
    Design

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  4. Maps

    Mapping the Growing Gap Between Job Seekers and Employers

    Mapping job openings with available employees in major U.S. cities reveals a striking spatial mismatch, according to a new Urban Institute report.

  5. Design

    The Curious Politics of a Montreal Mega-Mall

    The car-dependent suburb it’ll be built in wants to greenlight Royalmount against the city government’s wishes but it needs them to pay for the public infrastructure.