Created by electrical discharges high above thunderstorm clouds, red sprites are a surreal sight to behold. These red-orange flashes in the sky almost seem like fireworks, but are actually caused by discharges of positive lightning. Though they can be hard to catch, photographer Paul M. Smith has dedicated his career to hunting them down.
Known as the “sprite chaser,” Smith travels around North America to document this incredible phenomenon and leads workshops to help others enjoy their beauty. For Smith, these rare occurrences provide endless inspiration. “They are so beautiful—to me they are truly one of the most eye-catching events in nature,” Smith tells My Modern Met. “They are so mysterious. I love to be capturing something that is still in the process of being understood. Every capture could hold another clue in helping us understand the processes.”
In fact, when one considers that it wasn't until 1989 that the first red sprite was caught on film, it's a stunning feat that Smith is able to track so many. This is partially due to his ability to forecast the weather and predict the potential for sprites within a storm system. This, coupled with detailed research and an expert knowledge of his equipment, helps him capture his best images.
Smith hopes that his work will spark curiosity in others to understand more about the different mysteries of nature. “I think it is humbling to realize that we don't know everything on our planet yet and that we are still finding new things even now,” he admits. “Sprites are very exciting because our upper atmosphere is so poorly understood and hard to study. Sprites and other transient luminous events give us a look into that area of our planet that has not been possible before.”