The most bizarre of all electrical effects is ball lightning. People have reported seeing ball lightning, a rare phenomenon that resembles a glowing sphere of electricity, for hundreds of years. The phenomenon lasts only a short time, perhaps ten seconds, before either fading away or violently dissipating with a small explosion. Ball lightning is the name given to the mobile luminous spheres which have been observed during thunderstorms. Visual sightings are often accompanied by sound, odor, and permanent material damage.
Many scientists still deny its existence, but there are so many eyewitness accounts of the phenomenon that it's difficult to deny its reality.
Surveys estimate that between 1 in 30 and 1 in 150 people believe that they have seen ball lightning. Ball lightning is a rare effect in which a glowing, drifting bubble of light, typically some 8" in diameter, appears.
Despite some fairly consistent characteristics, ball lightning has thus far defied scientific explanation, but it's not for a lack of theories.
Graham K. Hubler, a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. stated:
There's certainly no consensus. I don't think that anyone knows what it is, Most scientists feel that the proper model hasn't been found yet. If two out of a hundred people ever even see it in their lifetime then it's pretty rare because you see thunderstorms all the time, said Hubler. Just a thunderstorm will not produce it, there's some other conditions that makes it happen.
Hubler himself had a ball lightning experience:
His close encounter happened at age 16, while he was riding out a thunderstorm in an open sided park pavilion. He describes seeing a glowing, tennis ball size formation hovering nearby. It drifted along a few feet above the ground, but when it came inside the pavilion, it dropped down to the ground and skittered along the floor. It made lots of gyrations or oscillations and a hissing sound like boiling water. When it went out the other side of the pavilion, it climbed back up several feet off the ground.
Hubler stated the ball behaved as if it had a charge and was following electric field lines along the Earth. It's extraordinary, you're so startled that you remember it for the rest of your life. I remember telling people what I had seen, and they thought I was crazy, so I stopped talking about it, I didn't know what I'd seen until ten years later when I attended a seminar in graduate school.
While some skeptics remain, there is significant observational evidence for ball lightning's existence.
There are around 10,000 written accounts of observations covering many countries with similar properties recurring in many observations, said John Abrahamson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
All this points to a phenomenon which is repeatable and justifies a single label.
Thousands of eyewitnesses have described seeing a floating, glowing ball similar to a tennis ball or even a beach ball. Ball lightning is sometimes sighted near metal fences and other objects likes wires. This displays their affinity towards metallic objects. The sightings generally accompany thunderstorms, but it's unclear what other similarities ball lightning might share with its conventional relative. 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. His assistance was knocked unconscious.
Scientists have claimed that plasma may be behind the phenomenon. Plasma is the fourth state of matter besides, liquid, solid and gas. It is hot, electrically charged and fluid like. While it exists in abundance in the universe inside stars it is usually not found on Earth except at the heart of a nuclear explosion. How it might exist as a free floating bubble under normal conditions is unknown.
An alternative theory promotes the notion that small particles held together in a ball by electrical charges emit chemical energy through oxidation. This theory suggests that when lightning strikes a surface, a vapor is formed. The vapor condenses into particles that mix with oxygen in the air and then slowly burn with the release of chemical energy.
The whole picture is electrical energy, in a huge amount really, and a small part of that energy gets converted to chemical energy and stored in particles, said Abrahamson, who supports this theory.
Laboratory work is currently seeking to reproduce ball lightning under this model and several others. Meanwhile, the Naval Research Lab's Graham Hubler hopes that technology will leave less room for the real thing to hide. There is such a proliferation of video cameras these days that people must have captured pictures of ball lightning, and it would be an immense help to see some of those videos and study them, he said.
Here's a real, physical phenomenon that's out there in nature, and we don't have the foggiest idea what it is, that's interesting, he added. I hope in my lifetime we find out what it is. It's possible that there's some very new physics in it and that could be very profound.
An artificial version of ball lightning has been reported on submarines that use huge batteries to operate their engines. Improper connection of the battery causes an electrical discharge that sometimes reportedly spawns glowing, hot balls. Professor James Tuck, of Los Alamos Laboratories, heard about this and attempted to duplicate with effect using a submarine battery stored on campus. Most of his tests produced nothing resembling ball lightning, but in a final experiment before the lab was disassembled Tuck introduced a low concentration of methane around the area of the discharge. The result was an unexpectedly large explosion and the end of the experiments. Later, film from movie cameras operating during that last test showed something Tuck hadn't seen at the time, a 4" round glowing ball.
It's these personal encounters with ball lighting that have given it its mysterious reputation. Many eyewitnesses describe its movement or behavior as seemingly intelligent, as if it knows where it wants to go. When it enters houses, it often enters through doorways or windows and travels down hallways. But people tend to personify such peculiar events and it's ludicrous to think that the balls of light have any intelligence, but the narratives are no less intriguing.
The phenomenon of ball lightning can be described as the appearance of mysterious glowing balls accompanied by thunderstorms. There are many interesting theories which explain this atmospheric electrical phenomenon. The atmospheric maser theory is one of them. Atmospheric Maser Theory:
This theory is widely used to explain the phenomenon of ball lightning. However, the theory has not been properly proven yet. As per this theory, ball lightning is formed as a result of the laser effect. Charged molecules of water present in the clouds are subject to electrical activity. Water molecules in the clouds transition to an excited state when they come into contact with electricity. The result of this interaction is that a stimulated emission of radiation takes place. It causes light to amplify for a short period of time. This amplified light is nothing but ball lightning.
Ball Lightning Facts. There are many different theories which explain what ball lightning is. People across the globe have made different observations about this phenomenon. Some interesting facts about ball lightning and details about the observations made by people are given here.
According to the surveys conducted to ascertain the existence of ball lightning, 1 out of 30 people claim to have seen ball lightning. Ball lightning is a phenomenon of rare occurrence. Therefore, skeptics often raise doubts about its existence. However, one should note that there are as many as 10,000 written accounts of observations of ball lightning. People from many countries have made their observations about this phenomenon. Also, the properties of ball lightning as described in these accounts have great similarities. One thing about ball lightning which repeatedly occurs in various eyewitness accounts is that it is a glowing and floating ball shaped structure. The diameter of this floating ball ranges from a fraction of an inch to 4'. The power contained in ball lightning is said to be 100 watts. Generally, ball lightning lasts for 10 seconds. However, it may also be as short as 1 second, and at times, extend to an entire minute. In the end, the fireball may explode or just fade away. In most cases, ball lightning appears along with lightning discharges that extend from the clouds to the ground surface. Ball lightning is sometimes sighted near metal fences and other objects likes wires. This displays their affinity towards metallic objects. As per Pyotr Kapitsa, a physicist and Nobel laureate from Russia, the ball in ball lightning acts as a resonant microwave cavity. The glow of ball lightning is driven by microwave radiation. The radiation originates from lightning clouds, and flows along paths of ionized air. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's records provide some useful and interesting insights on the ball lightning phenomenon. Ball lightning, as per Brewer's description, appears like slow moving balls. These balls either move along the length of the ground surface or just drop on the ground. He also reported that these glowing balls would sometimes explode or split into smaller ones. The phenomenon of ball lightning, owing to its popularity, has found place in adventure novels. French playwright and novelist Jules Verne, in his novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, has mentioned a ball of fire. The ball is seen during a storm, it descends on the protagonist's raft from the sky.
According to Graham Hubler, development in the technology of cameras should help lead us to the truth about ball lightning. With increased use of video cameras by people across the globe, it won't be long before the truth about ball lightning will be uncovered, sooner than later.
Here are some fascinating accounts with ball lighting, including many strange reports, both vintage and recent:
In December 1726 a number of British newspapers printed an extract of a letter from John Howell of the sloop Catherine and Mary:
- One early account was reported during the Great Thunderstorm at a church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in England, on October 21, 1638. Four people died and approximately 60 were injured when, during a severe storm, an 8' ball of fire was described as striking and entering the church, nearly destroying it. Large stones from the church walls were hurled into the ground and through large wooden beams. The ball of fire allegedly smashed the pews and many windows, and filled the church with a foul sulphurous odour and dark, thick smoke. The ball of fire reportedly divided into two segments, one exiting through a window by smashing it open, the other disappearing somewhere inside the church. The explanation at the time, because of the fire and sulphur smell, was that the ball of fire was the devil or the flames of hell. Later, some blamed the entire incident on two people who had been playing cards in the pew during the sermon, thereby incurring God's wrath.
One particularly large example was reported on the authority of Dr. Gregory in 1749:
- As we were coming throí the Gulf of Florida on 29th of August, a large ball of fire fell from the Element and split our mast in 10,000 Pieces, if it were possible, split our Main Beam, also Three Planks of the Side, Under Water, and Three of the Deck, killed one man, another had his Hand carried off, and had it not been for the violent rains, our Sails would have been of a Blast of Fire.
- Admiral Chambers on board the Montague, November 4, 1749, was taking an observation just before noon, he observed a large ball of blue fire about three miles distant from them. They immediately lowered their topsails, but it came up so fast upon them, that, before they could raise the main tack, they observed the ball rise almost perpendicularly, and not above 40 or 50 yards from the main chains when it went off with an explosion, as great as if a hundred cannons had been discharged at the same time, leaving behind it a strong sulphurous smell. By this explosion the main top-mast was shattered into pieces and the main mast went down to the keel. 5 men were knocked down and one of them very bruised. Just before the explosion, the ball seemed to be the size of a large mill-stone.
- A 1753 report depicts ball lightning as having been lethal when professor Georg Richmann of Saint Petersburg, Russia, created a kite flying apparatus similar to Benjamin Franklin's proposal a year earlier. Richmann was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder and ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. While the experiment was under way, ball lightning appeared and travelled down the string, struck Richmann's forehead and killed him. The ball had left a red spot on Richmann's forehead, his shoes were blown open, and his clothing was singed. His engraver was knocked unconscious. The door frame of the room was split and the door was torn from its hinges.[
- In 1809, the crew of a British ship, H.M.S. Warren Hastings, witnessed 3 'balls of fire'. It was reported in an English journal that these fireballs attacked the ship. One person on the deck was killed by the first ball; the ship's mast caught fire. The second ball caused mild burns to one of the crewmen. The third ball killed one person. In all, two people died and one was injured during the incident.
This incident occurred in Bavaria in 1921:
- In Paris in 1849 during an electric storm. A red ball hovered about 20' above a tree, burst open, and released several streaks of lightning. One streak of lightning hit a house, blowing a hole in it. The remnants of the ball began spinning and then exploded, knocking down three pedestrians.
In 1936, a reader related this story to the editor of the London Daily Mail:
- A 9 year old girl and her uncle were in the first floor of a building during a severe morning thunderstorm. Ball lightning appeared on the left side of the window sill. The ball fell to the floor where it jumped up and down once or twice, then started to roll slowly toward the observers across the wooden floor, leaving no marks. It was translucent, and the rapidly changing colors showing spots of light green, crimson, light blue, and pale yellow. It then rolled toward the tile stove, crept up the iron parts, leaving a deep groove about the width and depth of a thumb. Then it exploded in an air vent.
- During a thunderstorm I saw a large, red hot ball come down from the sky. It struck our house, cut the telephone wire, burnt the window frame, and then buried itself in a tub of water which was underneath. The water boiled for some minutes afterwards, but when it was cool enough for me to search, I could find nothing in it.
- Willy Ley discussed a sighting in Paris on July 5, 1852 for which sworn statements were filed with the French Academy of Science. During a thunderstorm, a tailor living next to Church of the Val-de-Gr‚ce saw a ball the size of a human head come out of the fireplace. It flew around the room, reentered the fireplace, and exploded in and destroyed the top of the chimney.
- Esther Webb of Coeur d'Alene. said that back in the 1960s in the small town of Burke just above Wallace, ID, one afternoon she saw lightning strike a transformer near her home. From that transformer came a greenish/white, basketball sized ball of lightning that slowly pulsated across the yard and through a narrow opening in a window. It then traveled down a hallway and into the living room where it destroyed a television set. The ball lightning then exited through a slit in the woodshed door that had been left partially ajar. Esther believes that the ball lightning, which stayed between 3'and 6' above the ground, followed the electric wiring of the house that was buried beneath the home.
- A Pennsylvania woman in 1960 reported a large red ball coming through a window, without damaging the window or the blinds. The ball went from the living room to the dining room, then exited through another closed window. Once again, there was no damage to the window. The woman reported tingling in the back of her neck when the ball passed her. She touched the spot with her hand but didnít feel anything. When her husband later came home from work, the back of her hand was burned and the hair in the back of her head fell out.
A Coast Guard officer reported this enormous ball lighting sighting in 1977, which because of its size, others might declare as a UFO encounter:
- In the spring of 1963, for example, the late astronomer Roger Jennison was aboard a late night flight through a storm when he witnessed the appearance of a basketball sized ball of light shortly after lightning struck the plane. The ball emerged from the pilotís cabin and passed down the aisle of the aircraft, maintaining the same height and course for the whole distance over which it could be observed.
In January 1984, ball lightning measuring about 4" in diameter entered a Russian passenger aircraft and, according to the Russian news release:
- The ball lightning phenomenon was very large and estimated to be about the size of a bus. It was a brilliant yellow/green transparent ball with a fuzzy outline. Intense light was emitted for about three seconds before flickering out. Severe static was heard on the radio. The object slowly rotated around a horizontal axis and seemed to bounce off projections on the ground.
- Flew above the heads of the stunned passengers. In the tail section of the airliner, it divided into two glowing crescents which then joined together again and left the plane almost noiselessly. The ball lightning left two holes in the plane. A ball of sparks about the size of a basketball entered a commercial aircraft, apparently through an engine airtake, moved into the fuselage, and proceeded to chase a flight attendant up and down the aisle. She was screaming as she tried to outrun the ball lightning. It dissipated quickly before striking her.
- On July 10, 2011, during a powerful thunderstorm, a ball of light with a 6'7" tail went through a window to the control room of local emergency services in Liberec, Czech Republic. The ball bounced from window to the ceiling, then to the floor and back to the ceiling, where it rolled along it for about 8'. Then it dropped to the floor and disappeared. The staff present in the control room were frightened, smelled electricity and burned cables and thought something was burning. The computers froze, not crashed, and all communications equipment was knocked out for the night until restored by technicians. Aside from damages caused by disrupting equipment, only one computer monitor was destroyed.
Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, reported witnessing what he called a fiery ball while in the company of his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II:
- On December 15, 2014, flight BE-6780 (Saab 2000) in the UK experienced ball lightning in the forward cabin just before lightning struck the aircraft nose.
- Once my parents were away, recounted the Tsar, and I was at the all night vigil with my grandfather in the small church in Alexandria. During the service there was a powerful thunderstorm, streaks of lightning flashed one after the other, and it seemed as if the peals of thunder would shake even the church and the whole world to its foundations. Suddenly it became quite dark, a blast of wind from the open door blew out the flame of the candles which were lit in front of the iconostasis, there was a long clap of thunder, louder than before, and I suddenly saw a fiery ball flying from the window straight towards the head of the Emperor. The ball (it was of lightning) whirled around the floor, then passed the chandelier and flew out through the door into the park. My heart froze, I glanced at my grandfather, his face was completely calm. He crossed himself just as calmly as he had when the fiery ball had flown near us, and I felt that it was unseemly and not courageous to be frightened as I was. I felt that one had only to look at what was happening and believe in the mercy of God, as he, my grandfather, did. After the ball had passed through the whole church, and suddenly gone out through the door, I again looked at my grandfather. A faint smile was on his face, and he nodded his head at me. My panic disappeared, and from that time I had no more fear of storms
Glenn R. Frazier relates at incident at his grandfather's cottage in upstate Pennsylvania:
- During a light thunderstorm in July of 1991, says Joanna Bosse of Nashville, Tennessee, a ball of plasma about 3" in diameter entered through my den window. The ball passed through the window leaving no marks on the plastic screen or the window glass. The ball was orange and blue and made a frying sound as it moved across the room, through the door into the living room, where it exited through the front storm door back outside, leaving no marks on the glass.
Bill Melfi was on vacation on a small farm in Tennessee when he had this experience:
- I was sitting on a screened porch. I remember a brilliant flash of lightning and a large clap of thunder. Seconds later, my mother screamed. My grandfather and I turned to look in through the doorway and saw what looked like a ball of electricity coming down the hallway from the back door. It was about the size of a basketball and had an off yellow kind of haze. It sounded like a large stream of water coming through a faucet. When it got to the kitchen area, it flickered and flashed a little brighter, and then was gone.
Here are several more reports from various locations:
- I saw two balls of light, one about 3' and the other about 4' in diameter. They were glowing with a blue/green light that was about as bright as a 50 watt bulb and translucent as a balloon. They moved side by side, the larger one leading. The movement was quick and somewhat zigzag. I chased after it with a stick in hand, but they were faster than me. They didn't break up, just disappeared in the woods.
Kim LeVeque of Ann Arbor, Michigan tells this incredible story:
- I saw a ball of light moving along the ground across the street from my house, says an observer in Canton Ohio. It seemed to be about 10" in diameter. I saw the light move through the window of a church building. The light moved in and out. It seemed curious and not something frightful. I continued to watch the light explore the building, and move into a tree, without any sign of damage.
- I first saw the ball lightning when it came out the front of the stereo. There was an explosion, smoke, and debris, and a large orange ball. It went into the front of the television set and exited through the wall behind the TV. With the explosion, cupboard doors flew open and were torn from the hinges, glass jars broke, the refrigerator door blew open and eggs cracked inside.
- An unidentified individual was vacationing on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, in 1992. He said that ball lightning rotated very slowly from the beach into the water some 200' east of the spot where he was standing. It was reddish/green and the size of a large watermelon. It took about a minute or so for the ball of lightning, about 4' to 6' above the ground, to disappear.
- Another man saw a ball of lightning while fishing in a boat on a Minnesota lake in the 1970s. It was the size of a car tire and moved very slowly as it rotated into the woods offshore.
- A woman from the United Kingdom reported she was sitting at home when, without any warning, a great orange ball, rather like a big grapefruit but more orange and fluffy at the edges, came through the front window, which was closed and the blind also closed. It traveled horizontally at about shoulder height for about 10 seconds and was immediately followed by a clap of thunder just above me which was so loud that I shot out of my chair.