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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 07/13/2010

Ball lightning: real or fantasy?

By Steve Tracton

* Another shot at rain today: Full Forecast | Melting Greenland ice *

Artist's depiction of ball lightning. By Dr. G. Hartwig, London, 1886. Credit: NOAA.

Imagine -- or perhaps you've experienced something like this for real -- you've taken shelter at a picnic table under cover with thunderstorms roaring nearby. All of a sudden you notice a ball of light appear out of nowhere floating toward you. As the ball enters the shelter, you're amazed to hear it sizzling like a burning branch but feel no heat. It appears to float undisturbed through and then out the shelter where it bounces across the ground before disappearing.

You scratch your head and wonder -- was this an illusion, a natural phenomenon, or perhaps a probe from an alien mother ship circling the Earth? If you are an oldies-but-goodies fan (or just an oldie like myself), maybe your first thought is the refrain from Jerry Lee Lewis's 1957 hit song, Great Balls of Fire: "I say goodness gracious great balls of fire...oooeee, oooee".

What you might have witnessed is ball lightning, a luminous orange or reddish spherically shaped object, which averages about 6 to 20 inches in diameter and lasts a few seconds to a few minutes before disappearing (much longer than a split-second lightning bolt).

Well documented reports of ball lightning date back to the Middle Ages, including descriptions of it passing through solid objects such as windows and walls without dissipating. However, physical evidence for its existence and behavior has been ambiguous at best.

A new report from the UK's Royal Society gathers many previously unpublished sightings of ball lightning. One describes how a luminous ball left a hole the size of a basketball in a screen door as it entered a house and then found its way to the basement. In another, a glowing blob bounced on a Russian teacher's head more than 20 times before vanishing. In one famous sighting in March 1963, a glowing sphere floated down the aisle of an Eastern Airlines aircraft that had been struck by lightning.

Perhaps most bizarrely, shortly after takeoff of an Ilyushin-18 flying over the Black Sea, a "fireball" appearing on the fuselage in front of the crew's cockpit reemerged several seconds later in the passenger's lounge and slowly flew about the heads of the stunned passengers. The object left the plane noiselessly from the tail section. Upon landing, holes were discovered in the fuselage fore and aft.

Believers vs. non-believers

Reports such as these have long been dismissed as a product of fanciful imaginations, folklore, and hoaxers not unlike dismissive attitudes towards UFO sightings. However, with around 10,000 sightings over the past few decades and, more significantly, plausible physical explanations and recent laboratory recreations of something resembling ball lightning, most, but not all scientists seem convinced that it is a real, naturally occurring phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the exact physical mechanisms responsible for its occurrence are largely unknown. Since natural ball lightning appears to occur only in the vicinity of thunderstorms and lightning, its origin and composition is most likely electrical in nature. Beyond that, as described by an article in New Scientist, explaining it has "proven to be bafflingly, frustratingly, mind-bendingly difficult" (as are most scientifically challenging issues -- think climate change, for example). One major problem is that there's no agreement on what it is one is trying to explain. There are innumerable eyewitness accounts, and almost nothing in common among them.

Laboratory experiments (such as this one and this one) might shed some light on the nature of ball lightning. However, although some experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, it is presently unknown whether these are actually related to any naturally occurring phenomenon.

Among the many plausible explanations, one leading theory suggests that ball lightning forms when a lightning strike vaporizes silica in soil. The silicon vapor condenses into a fine dust that is bound together by electrical charges into a floating ball, which would oxidize and glow. Another suggests that ball lightning is a highly ionized blob of plasma held together by its own magnetic fields. The bottom line is that no single theory tells the whole story. Rather, ball lightning likely reflects a set of different processes.

Not all scientists are totally convinced that ball lightning is a real, physical phenomenon. The headline of a recent article in New Scientist proclaims: "Ball lightning may be an illusion." The argument is that fluctuations in magnetic fields from nearby lightning bolts could "trick" the brain into "seeing" glowing objects. The claim, which I'm not yet ready to accept, is that magnetically induced hallucinations account for about half of all ball lightning sightings.

Have you ever seen ball lightning, real or imagined? Let's hear about your experience.

By Steve Tracton  | July 13, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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I haven't seen it myself, but my maternal grandfather once saw a spark-emitting ball of fire travel up his telephone wire to where it connected with the house, whereupon it disintegrated with a deafening crash. This happened during one of the very intense thunderstorms which strike Chippewa County, Wisconsin each summer.

This points out another charactaristic of "ball lightning". When it does disintegrate, it does so with an extremely loud thunder-like noise.

It's likely that ball lightning is an example of a piezoelectric phenomenon. Piezoelectricity also occurs in the vicinity of active faults, often as stresses build up prior to a major earthquake, and takes the form of spark-emitting "UFO-like" balls of light or light-emitting plasma. There is some substance to the connection with silica, as the stresses which build up along siliceous and possibly other rocks along a fault line are thought to build up electric charges which manifest as visible piezoelectric spheroids of plasma. My opinion is that intense electric potentials may also form such plasma spheres which manifest as ball lightning.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 13, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I HAVE seen at least one example of "bead lightning"--a lightning strike which appears as a serial progression of bead-like images as it progresses across the sky. This strike occurred on the back edge of a severe thunderstorm several years ago near my home in Arlington County, and occurred at high altitude as the storm was receding.

I'm not sure if all ball lightning produces a noise as it disintegrates, but in the case of those which do at close range, the "thunderclap" is deafening.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 13, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid in Richmond, I was looking through a window to see the pounding rain. I remember that my mother was right behind me at the time. All I remember is a very quick flash of lightening right in front of the window (probably 10-15 ft away) and there was a ball at the end. We both jumped and ran as fast as we could away from the window. I'll never forget that sight. I have not seen one since.

Posted by: sprinter78 | July 13, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

My wife and I both witnessed ball lightning. It was in the Outer Banks during a particular bad thunderstorm, the power went out and everything was pitch black.

As I watched the lightning show outside, I noticed a very bright ball of light kind of bouncing in the air. My wife noticed it and we thought it was someone outside...but we could see that this light had no one behind it. At the time, neither of us had ever heard of ball lightning so we were enraptured really - watching this light move slowly down the street for what felt like a couple minutes. Then it suddenly disappeared.

Honestly, we were both a little bit spooked, since neither of us had heard of this phenomena before at the time. Then when I described it to a scientist friend that next morning she told us what it was and how rare they are.

I don't recall the ball lightning we saw booming after it went out...but there was also a big thunderstorm with lightning/booms every few seconds so it may have or not, but neither of us recalled it 'exploding' per se.

Posted by: BritDrNVA | July 13, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Was watching some lighting when I was a kid at my grandmothers house in WV up in the mountains. The electricity was out and since you're literally up in the mountains the clouds are right on you. She had a metal roof so the rain always sounded much louder.

Was watching the lightening since there was nothing better to do and a big orange ball of lighting came down and I disappeared as fast as it showed. Pretty spectacular.

Never seen anything like it since(either).

- Ray

Posted by: rmcazz | July 13, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

How can ball lightning damage airplanes, yet not burn or harm people, even when it reportedly bounces on their heads? Perhaps because most of the airplane's structure was metal?

Posted by: StevenDolley | July 13, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Ball lightning is very real. I first heard of it as a kid reading books on weather and the atmosphere. Then in 1992 @ Ft. Amador, Panama @ the Balboa Yacht club, approx. 4am while boarding a private vessel to take a canal transit. It happened - ball lightning! Panama is a hot, tropical country and the evening and pre-dawn skies are constantly filled with lightning - no rain or thunder, just lightning that zig-zags the sky in every imaginable color. I am a believer in this strange natural phenomenon, because I witnessed it. Absolutely brilliant!

Posted by: rkayblock1 | July 13, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid growing up in Takoma Park, MD, my mother told me one day that a lightening bolt hit something in our back yard, producing a ball of light that came down our yard, went through the screen door into the kitchen where she was standing, and then promptly disappeared down the kitchen sink. All in a few seconds. No noise when it departed (though I'm sure there must have been quite a boom when the original bolt hit).

Posted by: craighowell1 | July 13, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

rkayblock1...At what time of year were you in Panama? I was there during 1966/67 over a full wet season and dry season.

Generally the thunderstorms around Panama City occur in mid-to late afternoon during the wet season [April-November] but are rare during the dry season [December-March]. The peak month appears to be September, during the height of our hurricane season. Thunderstorms are rare after dark, and before noon, but not unknown, and "heat lightning" can be frequent even sometimes during the dry season.

The position of the ITCZ seems to be important w.r.t. thunderstorms in Panama. Right now the ITCZ is sitting right over or just north of the Panama Canal. In winter [dry season] the ITCZ retreats to the vicinity of Ecuador. It rarely gets as far south as Peru, except possibly in extreme El Nino years.

Strangely enough, hurricanes are nearly unknown in Panama. This may be due to the low latitude, 9 degrees north. Panama is too close to the Equator for tropical cyclones to form. I believe one has formed in late November in the Caribbean just north of Bocas Del Toro and Chiriqui Provinces.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 13, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

A foremost hypothesis suggests that ball lightning forms after a lightning strike vaporises silica in soil. The silicon vapour condenses into a fine dust that is bound together by electrical charges into a floating ball, which would oxidise and glow. In my latest book, ‘UFO: The Search for Truth’ I investigate this issue at length, as numerous UFO sightings may relate to this phenomenon – but not all.

Some reports have indicated that a number of these mysterious balls have acted as if under intelligent guided control.

Pat Regan

Author of

‘UFO: The Search for Truth’

Posted by: patregan | July 14, 2010 4:17 AM | Report abuse


Pat, what's the essence of your thesis ("truth") concerning UFO's??.

"acted as if under intelligent control": What's your point in regard to your overall feeling about whether UFO's are or are not driven by aliens from other worlds??

Maybe off subject, but I'm really curious

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | July 14, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe the ball lightning we saw was controlled by a higher power...they only occur during would be indicative of something to do with a thunderstorm. If it were controlled intelligently why not have them form any other time?

Posted by: BritDrNVA | July 15, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

“Pat, what's the essence of your thesis ("truth") concerning UFO's??.
"acted as if under intelligent control": What's your point in regard to your overall feeling about whether UFO's are or are not driven by aliens from other worlds??
Maybe off subject, but I'm really curious”

This is a massive subject hence I took me well over 400 pages to get this out in my latest book UFO: The Search for Truth.
Some of the international public reports that I have documented indicate that some forms of UFO are indeed controlled by an unknown intelligence. Some forms of unknown intelligence may of course be a natural phenomenon that is so far inexplicable to contemporary science. Others however suggest that certain forms are in fact ‘monitoring’ our activities for some reason. Again I have logged such incidences in the book. With the UFO axis I am afraid that the TRUTH can takes many divergent forms and bring numerous issues together under the one umbrella term that we call UFO.

Posted by: patregan | July 16, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

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