I know there are winds and other effects at very high altitudes but how high can storms with lightning and rain be?

Bottom line, let's say you are flying a craft with the ceiling of a U-2, can't you fly over any storm?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I believe that the X-15 could fly high enough to not worry about weather (considering that it actually reached space). $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Nov 25, 2014 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ @cpast, I'm asking about the weather not which craft(s) can outfly it. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2014 at 20:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @cpast: There are weather effects in space $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Nov 26, 2014 at 9:27

2 Answers 2


Severe convection will have anvil tops at the tropopause and overshooting tops can penetrate much higher (severe thunderstorm warnings often use a value of 60,000 ft for threats to aircraft). How high the overshooting tops can get is a balance of the positive buoyancy during parcel ascent against the negative buoyancy once it gets into the warming stratospheric air.

A U2 could overfly these storms, but most aircraft are not designed for stratospheric flight (due to the temperature increasing with height in the stratosphere) and any commercial aircraft will be unable to go over these storms.

  • $\begingroup$ Why do you say the temperature increases with height? Doesn't it get colder when you go higher? Or are you talking about something like friction with the outside air? $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2014 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @midnightBlue in the stratosphere temperature increases with height due to absorption of shortwave radiation by ozone. $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Nov 26, 2014 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Ok! So basically there is less absorption of the radiation the higher you go? $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2014 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @midnightBlue See srh.noaa.gov/jetstream/atmos/atmprofile.htm $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Nov 26, 2014 at 19:06

No. Sprites, also known as upper atmosphere lightning, occur from 31 to 56 miles AGL. (source: Wikipedia) So weather phenomena routinely exceed your U2's altitude by a lot!

Now are Sprites dangerous to flight? Unknown. I know of no case where an aircraft has been hit by a Sprite.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 31 miles is well above even the U2's flight ceiling, so while it's not true that you could always go up to escape weather, Sprites aren't really an issue. I hope that made sense. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2014 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Nifty, so these Sprites are the only weather phenomena that could potentially hurt me? Also, the wiki article does cite this as a possible incident involving a balloon... $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2014 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ Aren't aircraft (at least large metal skinned aircraft) generally immune to lightning? Would a sprite strike be any different than a 'normal' lightning strike (which relatively common)? $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Nov 26, 2014 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Johnny Yep, the Faraday Cage. Lightning may cause damage to the surface it touches, especially in composite materials, but electronics are protected and a strike isn't going to bring down an aircraft. $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2014 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ @SHAF unless the EM fluctuation fries them $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2014 at 9:10

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