Freaks of nature

Sprites: Large, weak luminous flashes of red light with blue trails that appear above thunderclouds sometimes when powerful lightning strikes the ground below.

Elves: Rapidly expending discs of light that can accompany sprites. The name is an acronym for Emissions of Light and Very Low Frequency disturbances due to electromagnetic pulse sources. Sprite halos are similar to elves but shoot downward.

Blue jets: Brief shoots of light from thunderclouds, not associated with lightning strikes. Blue starters, trolls, gnomes and pixies are variations.

Source: University of Albany

It's the season for sprites and elves in the Lowcountry, but you probably won't see them.

Summer afternoon storm weather is cranking up here, the days when cumulonimbus clouds begin boiling as the air heats and the coast, inland or both get pelted. When sky-to-ground lightning strikes, some of the more spectacular freaks of nature sporadically occur above those thunderheads, 30 to 60 miles high in the atmosphere.

Sprites are huge, fantastical red flashes with blue trail flashes that look like a cross between fireworks and ghostly jellyfish. First photographed in 1989, they remain mostly a mystery. But scientists are getting a handle on them, and a recent Penn State University study linked them to "plasma irregularities," according to the National Science Foundation.

Um, plasma - you might be better off not asking, but plasma is recognized as one of the four states of matter, along with solids, liquids and gases. It's like gas but actually an electrically charged collection of electrons and ions. Much of the universe is made up of the stuff, according to Plasmas International.

Elves are like halos that form around sprites, giving them almost an angelic appearance.

There also are blue jets, blue starters, sprite halos, trolls, gnomes and pixies sparkling up there - all of them split-second flashes of one sort or another.

As for the storms themselves, it's time to factor the prospect in to outdoor plans. Thunderstorms can occur year-round here, but hot weather storms are so prevalent that at least one outdoor outfitter once said he wouldn't book afternoon trips.

"Thunderstorms, especially those triggered by the sea breeze, are very frequent along the coast," said Mark Malsick, S.C. Climate Office severe weather liaison. "With the right setup, thunderstorms can be a daily occurrence over the Lowcountry."

Forecasters on Monday expected a "low end" chance of the storms through Wednesday, said meteorologist Britt Cimbora, National Weather Service, Charleston. "It'll start to get busier Thursday."

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