Think of them as sprites on steroids: Gigantic jets are lightning-like discharges that spring from the tops of thunderstorms, reaching all the way from the thunderhead to the ionosphere more than 50 miles overhead. They're enormous and powerful.
"Gigantic jets are much more rare than sprites," says Oscar van der Velde, a member of the Lightning Research Group at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. "While sprites were discovered in 1989 and have since been photographed by the thousands, it was not until 2001-2002 that gigantic jets were first recorded from Puerto Rico and Taiwan." Only a few dozen gigantic jets have ever been seen, mostly over open ocean.
Because gigantic jets are so rare, researchers are paying special attention to Hurricane Hilda. "Observations in recent years suggest that large thunderstorm clusters embedded in tropical cyclones harbor favorable conditions for gigantic jets. Hilda seems to confirm this. Extreme turbulent mixing in the storm top may assist in triggering these events," he says.