His head in the clouds

For Fort Lewis College professor, finding quick red flashes is electric

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Fort Lewis College professor Ryan Haaland has been spending time during recent summers flying high in the sky, chasing recently discovered electrical discharges known as sprites. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald Fort Lewis College professor Ryan Haaland has been spending time during recent summers flying high in the sky, chasing recently discovered electrical discharges known as sprites.

Fuel was nearing a critical level. The storm seemed to be ebbing. Even though this was the last flight of a two-week campaign, it was time to play it safe, call it a night and fly back to the base. Right?

“All of a sudden, I’m watching the screen and the storm just lights up. I mean lightning everywhere,” Ryan Haaland says. He begged to the pilot of the Gulfstream V, a high-tech jet cruising high above the clouds, “Can we make one more turn?”

Under Haaland’s guidance, the plane spent the next several minutes making high-speed zigzags through the thin atmosphere at 45,000 feet. Rewards come far and few between in this type of research, but that night in 2009, the scientists got what they came for:

Huge explosions in the sky, with cameras rolling. Later, upon closer inspection, they would see something remarkable: an electrical discharge known as a sprite, with Jupiter, not quite so bright, serendipitously in the background.

Haaland is part of a four-person team that studies sprites. Named after an imaginary being or spirit, sprites are 17-millisecond bursts that occur in the upper atmosphere between 24 and 54 miles above Earth’s surface..

They’re red, they’re spectacular, and if you’re an admitted science geek such as Haaland, they give you a big charge.

“It’s like nothing you could script in a science-fiction movie,” he says. “It’s so amazing to watch.”

Haaland, the father of two sons, is also the chairman of the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College. So right now he’s busy teaching and dealing with a space crunch caused by a burgeoning program. But the last few summers he’s been climbing aboard jets that fly far, fast and high, following the huge Midwest thunderstorms known to produce sprites and other fantastic electrical phenomena.

Soon, perhaps in the next month or so, he and his team will be featured on TV. A Japanese network produced a series called “The Cosmic Shore,” which is being subtitled into English. Haaland understands it will be broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.

The 49-year-old – soft-spoken but reportedly hard-hitting in the hockey rink – seems way too young to be a retired Air Force man. He began teaching at the Air Force in 1990, just after he’d earned a master of science degree in geophysics and space physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. The Air Force supported him in his quest for a master’s and a doctorate, which he received in 1999 from the University of Oxford.

About eight years ago, with his background in space physics and his connections at the Air Force Academy, he joined three other men to study sprites. The others are space physicists at the Air Force and University of AlaskaFairbanks, and a Japanese graduate student.

It’s a small community that focuses on sprites, but they’re certainly making a mark. In 2009 the National Science Foundation funded his team to fly into storms in a federally owned Gulfstream V, looking for sprites.

Phenomenon’s significance

Why are sprites important? In other words, why would someone pay for you to do that? Perhaps a brief primer will explain.

They were theorized about 100 years ago by a Scottish physicist. For decades pilots periodically reported wondrous red flashes above the clouds, but the existence of sprites wasn’t established until about 20 years ago.

“It’s not just any lightning storm or thunderstorm that creates sprites,” Haaland explains. “It’s gotta be these really big – what we call mesoscale convective storms. They’re the big mushroom-cloud storm you see over the Midwest.”

The team seeks to learn about the energy in a sprite, which shoots upward close to the frontier of space, its streamers traveling at 0.7 times the speed of light. Where does that energy come from, how does it evolve and where does it go?

They also note other electrical phenomena – blue jets, which shoot up from clouds, and elves, which are expanding disks of energy near the edge of the atmosphere.

His team watches for the thunderstorms to build during the day and evening with the energy from ground heat, then at night they load into the Gulfstream. They’re armed with weather detectors and high-speed cameras that see at night and film at up to 30,000 frames per second. (In comparison, the film at your local movie theater is about 24 frames per second.)

Haaland’s role is generally that of navigator. In the plane, he watches a lightning-detection screen, looking for “positives” – positive cloud-to-ground lightning is more likely than the more numerous negative cloud-to-ground strikes to indicate the presence of sprites.

And they don’t really fly into storms, at least not on purpose. (“I’ve flown us inadvertently over some pretty nasty stuff,” he says.) They fly on the incoming edge of the storm, cameras pointed toward targeted spots most likely to create sprites. They fly sometimes for hundreds of miles before turning around and making another pass.

“We call them racetracks,” Haaland says. “We’ll just fly one side of the storm up and down.”

They’d established a reputation, and a pretty good catalog of photos and videos, when they were approached in the fall of 2010 by Japan’s NHK network with what seemed like a ridiculous plan. NHK wanted to get 3-D images of a sprite by triangulating from two planes.

“We thought, ‘Well, this is insane to do, but let’s give it a try,’” Haaland says.

They went out in the summer of 2011 with two Gulfstream IVs, flying about 15 miles apart, wondering if they were just “burning a hole in the sky eight hours a day.”

“There’s no way with an event that happens in 17 milliseconds that you can pull this off,” was the team’s nagging thought. “And we did it,” Haaland says. “The results are phenomenal.”

Mysterious images, captured

“The Cosmic Shore” investigates the relatively unexplored region between the clouds and outer space that includes the mesosphere – a region that Haaland notes used to be referred to as the “ignorosphere.” One part of the series is titled “Sprites: A Mysterious Burst of Light.” Other parts focus on auroras and star showers.

Backed again by the National Science Foundation, Haaland’s team, based along the Front Range, is set to take off in the summer of 2013. Haaland, for one, hasn’t lost his enthusiasm.

“We still don’t know if they’re just pretty to look at, like a rainbow,” Haaland says. Or they might indicate something unusual in the atmosphere – but what?

They’re a mystery and they’re breathtaking. If you’re a science geek, that’s plenty to keep you going.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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