Dry, gusty Santa Ana winds fanned a four-day wildfire in Southern California in 2008, contributing to this tornadolike fire whirl that appeared near homes in Yorba Linda. Fire whirls arise when superheated air above a wildfire drives strong updrafts and downdrafts that get sheared by the wind, causing them to twist into a vortex that funnels flames upward. Fortunately, most of these infernal twisters die out quickly, although some—such as the “dragon twist” that ripped through Tokyo in 1923 in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake, killing 44,000 people—can grow lethally large.
For more than a century, witnesses have reported nighttime sightings of brief, glowing tendrils, halos, and streaks around clouds. Scientists were skeptical until a group of researchers captured one on camera in 1989. As it turns out, weird glows—now known as transient luminous events, or TLEs—really do happen above thunderstorms. “Sprites” are columns of red light that can stretch out over 30 miles and extend to altitudes of 50 miles; they always coincide with common cloud-to-ground lightning, though scientists do not understand the connection. “Elves,” by far the most common TLE, are brief, fast-expanding 300-mile-wide doughnut-shaped glows that appear in the ionosphere, about 55 miles above Earth. “Blue jets” move upward from the tops of thunderstorms in a narrow cone and fade away at an altitude of about 25 miles. Based on satellite observations, researchers estimate that thunderstorms around the world generate about 40 TLEs every minute.