Ball Lightning

Ball lightning is a natural phenomenon, or debatably, a pseudoscientific theory. It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms. It takes the form of a long-lived, glowing, floating object, as opposed to the short-lived arcing between two points commonly associated with lightning. An early attempt to explain ball lightning was recorded by Nikola Tesla on March 5, 1904 (Electrical World and Engineer).

Some laboratory experiments claim to produce ball lightning, but there is no consensus that the phenomenon reproduced is related to the natural one. The natural occurrences are, by their nature, difficult to document accurately. Consequently many scientists continue to dispute the existence of ball lightning as a distinct physical phenomenon (see, for example, the review by Singer (2002)). In one such occurrence, Singer reports that staff at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge apparently saw ball lightning, although Brian Pippard, the Head of Department, was skeptical on its reality.


Ball lightning discharges were once thought to be extremely rare occurrences, but recent research shows that a few percent of the US population have been witnesses (Uman). Ball lightning is photographed very rarely, and details of witness accounts can vary widely. Many of the properties observed in ball lightning accounts conflict with each other, and it is very possible that several different phenomena are being incorrectly grouped together. The discharges can appear during thunderstorms, sometimes issuing from a lightning flash, but large numbers of encounters occur during good weather with no storms within hundreds of miles. Ball Lightning tends to float (or hover) in the air and take on a ball-like appearance. The shape can be spherical, ovoid, teardrop, or rod-like with one dimension being much larger than the others. The longest dimension observed is between fifteen and forty centimeters. Many are red to yellow in color, sometimes transparent, and some contain radial filaments or sparks.

Sometimes the discharge appears to be attracted to a certain object, and sometimes to move randomly. After several seconds the discharge leaves, disperses, is absorbed into something, or, rarely, vanishes in an explosion.

Ball lightning has been seen in places as diverse as "escorting" World War II bombers, flying alongside their wingtips. During this period, due to the enigmatic nature of this phenomenon, these appearances were referred to as "foo fighters." Other accounts place ball lightning as appearing over a kitchen stove to wandering down the aisle of an airliner. One report described ball lightning engulfing and following a car, causing the electrical supply to overload and fail.

One of the earliest recorded, and most destructive, occurrences is thought to have taken place during The Great Thunderstorm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in the United Kingdom, on October 21, 1638. Four people died and around 60 were injured when what appears to have been ball lightning struck a church.

Another reference to ball lightning appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book On the Banks of Plum Creek [Harper Trophy, 1937] in which the lightning appears during a thunderstorm near a cast iron stove in the family's kitchen. It is described as appearing near the stovepipe, then rolling across the floor, only to disappear as the mother chases it with a willow-branch broom.

Notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley also reported witnessing what he referred to as "globular electricity" during a thunderstorm on Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire in 1916. As related in his Confessions, he was sheltered in a small cottage when he "noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve inches in diameter, was stationary about six inches below and to the right of my right knee. As I looked at it, it exploded with a sharp report quite impossible to confuse with the continuous turmoil of the lightning, thunder and hail, or that of the lashed water and smashed wood which was creating a pandemonium outside the cottage. I felt a very slight shock in the middle of my right hand, which was closer to the globe than any other part of my body."

A famous example of the violent potential of ball lightning occurred in 1753 when Professor Georg Richmann, of Saint Petersburg, Russia created a kite flying aparatus similar to that built by Benjamin Franklin a year earlier. He was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences, when he heard thunder. The Professor ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. While the experiment was underway, a large ball lightning showed up, collided with Richmann's head and killed him, leaving a red spot. His shoes were blown open, parts of his clothes singed, the engraver knocked out; the doorframe of the room was split, and the door itself torn off its hinges.

Recently scientists at Tel Aviv University claim to have produced ball lightning in the lab using a microwave drill and ceramic substrate.


For a long time the phenomenon was treated as myth. Although speculation continues, there is now agreement that it is neither mythical nor purely psychological. Surveys have been taken of eyewitness accounts by at least 3000 people, and it has been photographed several times. There is as yet no widely accepted explanation.Difficult features of the lightning include its persistence and its near-neutral buoyancy in air. Until February of 2006 there was no convincing laboratory demonstration of ball lightning. In that month, Israeli scientists announced that they had created a short-lived effect using the same technology found in microwave ovens.

A popular hypothesis is that ball lightning is a highly ionized plasma contained by self-generated magnetic fields: a plasmoid. This hypothesis is not initially credible. If the gas is highly ionized, and if it is near thermodynamic equilibrium, then it must be very hot. Since it must be in pressure equilibrium with the surrounding air, it will be much lighter and hence float up rapidly. Magnetic fields, if present, might provide the plasmoid's coherence, but will not reduce this buoyancy. In addition a hot plasma cannot persist for long, because of recombination and heat conduction.

There may, however, be some novel form of plasma for which the above arguments do not fully apply. For example, a plasma may be composed of negative and positive ions, rather than electrons and positive ions. In that case, the recombination may be rather slow even at ambient temperature. One such theory involves positively charged hydrogen and negatively charged nitrites (NO2–) and nitrates (NO3–). In this theory, the role of the ions as seeds for the condensation of water droplets plays an important role.

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Ball Lightning In the News ...

Green fireball UFOs identified   MSNBC - December 1, 2010
Green fireballs that streaked across the sky and rolled down an Australian mountainside four years ago, spurring reports of UFOs in the area, might have been meteors and ball lightning, a researcher suggests.

Ball lightning may explain UFO sightings   BBC - December 1, 2010
Some UFO sightings could be explained by ball lightning and other atmospheric phenomena, claims Australian astrophysicist Stephen Hughes. The scientist has made a detailed study of an unusual event in 2006 when large meteors were observed over Brisbane. Their appearance occurred at the same time as a brilliant green object was seen to roll over nearby mountains.

Mysterious Ball Lightning: Illusion or Reality?   Science Daily - May 20, 2010
Ball lightning is a rare circular light phenomenon occurring during thunderstorms. Scientists have been puzzled by the nature of these apparent fire balls for a long time. Now physicists have calculated that the magnetic field of long lightning strokes may produce the image of luminous shapes, also known as phosphenes, in the brain. This finding may offer an explanation for many ball lightning observations.

Using fireballs to uncover the mysteries of ball lightning PhysOrg - February 18, 2008
Now, working with fellow Rennes scientist LeGarrec, as well as Dikhtyar and Jerby from Tel Aviv University and Sztucki and Narayanan at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, Mitchell can prove that nanoparticles likely exist in ball lightning. The results of the work by Mitchell and his colleagues can be found in Physical Review Letters: “Evidence for Nanoparticles in Microwave-Generated Fireballs Observed by Synchrotron X-Ray Scattering.” Right now, it looks as though one of the mysteries of ball lightning has been solved. This experiment has provided a strong case for the presence of nanoparticles in ball lightning. The next step is discovering what scientists can do with the information.

Ball Lightning: A Shocking Scientific Mystery National Geographic - June 2, 2006

People have reported seeing ball lightning a rare phenomenon that resembles a glowing sphere of electricity for hundreds of years. But scientists still can't explain what causes it, or even exactly what it is. Ball lightning floats near the ground, sometimes bounces off the ground or other objects, and does not obey the whims of wind or the laws of gravity. An average ball lightning glows with the power of a 100-watt bulb. Some have been reported to melt through glass windows and burn through screens. The record suggests that ball lightning is not inherently deadly, but there are reports of people being killed by contact most notably the pioneering electricity researcher Georg Richmann, who died in 1753. Richmann is believed to have been electrocuted by ball lightning as he conducted a lightning-rod experiment in St. Petersburg, Russia. The phenomenon lasts only a short time, perhaps ten seconds, before either fading away or violently dissipating with a small explosion.