Supercell aerial observations? Drones/planes?

Jan 7, 2008
Bryan, TX
I just was wondering if researchers are using any aerial observation tools in particular for supercell storms, something like the hurricane hunter planes used for tropical development. Maybe unmanned drones would be possible? Or are such vehicles not considered the most effective tools. Here's some interesting information on how data was gathered on lightning "sprites" and other bizarre high altitude lightning--and why do supercells not produce sprites but these other forms ("gnomes" & "pixies"):
Special viewing sites are needed to see sprites, as they always hide above thunderstorms. At the Yucca Ridge Field Station, run by FMA Research in northern Colorado, sprite-watchers can see lightning from storms 1,000 kilometers away over the Great Plains. A similar observatory is in the Pyrenees range of southern France. Other researchers take storm-jumper planes into the turbulent night skies to capture the elusive flashes.

The other major observing platform is in orbit. Important research has been done from the Space Shuttle, including the fateful flight of Columbia that crashed during reentry in 2003. And Taiwan's second satellite, launched in 2004, is dedicated to this field

The Role of Luck

The hunt for sprites and their siblings has also depended on lucky breaks. Sprites were first recorded in 1989 when some University of Minnesota scientists, waiting to film a rocket launch, pointed the camera at a distant thunderstorm. One of them checked the wiring and fixed a loose cord. Minutes later the tape caught a flash so brief it occupied only two frames. Those two frames of video launched a whole new branch of Earth science.

On 22 July 2000, Walter Lyons was at Yucca Ridge shooting video of a huge "mesoscale" storm complex when a smaller isolated "supercell" thunderstorm drifted northward, blocking the view. Supercells—the typical anvil-shaped cumulonimbus thunderstorms—do not produce sprites, but Lyons let the cameras roll. To his surprise, the recordings showed two new kinds of lights at the top of the supercell: gnomes and pixies.

Lyons is still looking for new lights. The scientific literature has eyewitness descriptions of lights in the high atmosphere dating back more than a century. Most correspond to sprites and blue jets. But a tantalizing handful describe bright white streaks rising straight and unbranched from thunderstorm tops. A few photos give the further detail that the tops of these lights shade to blue.

Some day we will capture these on tape, analyze their spectra, and give them a name. Like sprites, elves, and trolls, they have always been here, but we never had eyes to see them with.