Bill Beaty may have discovered a new natural phenomenon, with the surprising help of, of all sources, Youtube.
“Years ago during museum exhibits work I was explaining rainbow optics …and also explaining thunderstorm dynamics. I stumbled across a strange idea: shouldn’t the strong electrostatic fields in thunderstorms have a visible effect on rainbows?”, he speculated.
“E-fields should slightly distort falling raindrops, causing the light distribution of a rainbow to change slightly. Sometimes we should notice that a rainbow suddenly "flicks" during a lightning bolt, then slowly changes to its initial pattern as the e-fields build before another strike.”
He didn’t find flickering rainbows, but Youtube users “LordHermie” and “JimBob” pointed to him videos recording something very akin to what he originally suggested: leaping streams of light above rising thunderheads, brightly back-lit by the Sun.
“Rather than distortions of droplets, perhaps these are "sundogs" or parhelia light patterns caused by aligned ice crystals. A changing e-field could rotate all the ice plates or needles, causing the sundog to suddenly change shape and position. Or less likely, perhaps some condensing droplets are changing size under e-field influence (growth/shrinkage of small droplets is known to be altered by strong electrostatic fields.)”
We do know that ice crystals can populate thunderheads. And if Beaty’s “strange idea” is that they could align themselves under the influence of changing electrical fields, as he notes, this has been observed in laboratory conditions (Foster, Hallet, 2002, 2008). And it has also been observed in situ, due to thunderstorms, with meteorological radars (Caylor, Chandrasekar, 1996).
The big news here would be that these phenomena would combine to produce these light shows we may be seeing in these different videos, with several witnesses from different locations in Maryland, USA and Malaysia.
Beaty suggested they could be leaping sundogs, but like the rainbow’s end, you could chase parhelia but never reach them. Their position in the sky is only apparent. Ice crystals changing their orientation could change the configuration of halos, but it would probably not look like what we see in the videos, nor would it be dependent on the position of the thunderhead.
Instead, this could be something more direct than rainbows or halos, by having ice crystals actually changing the way they are reflecting streams of sunlight.
There are certainly many other possibilities, from hoaxes to a more prosaic mechanical action – like a thunder shockwave. But the behavior of the leaping streams of light, by almost instantly changing (apparently faster than a shockwave, thus eliminating mechanical action), and then slowly returning to the initial configuration, is certainly indicative that Beaty’s original suggestion of electrical fields influencing suspended ice crystals or droplets may be on to a fascinating, and so far unknown natural phenomenon.
There must be other records of this around, from video sharing sites to perhaps even historical accounts, mixed and confused with all kinds of other things. You see, this may be an actual unidentified aerial phenomenon being discovered… through Youtube.
We do live in interesting times. [with thanks to Bill Beaty, Martin Shough and Manuel Borraz]
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- Beaty, W. J.; “Leaping Sundogs produced by storm electrostatic fields”, Nov 2009
- Caylor, I.J.; Chandrasekar, V.; “Time-varying ice crystal orientation in thunderstorms observed with multiparameter radar”, Geoscience and Remote Sensing, IEEE Transactions, Volume 34, Issue 4 , Jul 1996, pp 847-858
- Foster, TC; Hallett, J; “The alignment of ice crystals in changing electric fields”, Atmospheric Research, Volume 62, Issues 1-2, May 2002, pp 149-169
- Foster, TC; Hallett, J; “Enhanced alignment of plate ice crystals in a non-uniform electric field”, Atmospheric Research, Volume 90, Issue 1, October 2008, pp 41-53
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