Ball Lightning Phenomenon

What Is Ball Lightning

Ball lightning is a mysterious weather phenomenon that remains largely unexplained. Probably the oldest written report of the event comes from an English monk in a manuscript from 1195. The monk describes a fiery globe falling from a storm cloud. Since then, many people have seen something similar: a glowing orb of light, usually associated with a thunderstorm, that lasts several seconds and often floats or moves erratically.

Is Ball Lightning Real?

Ball lightning is real, just rare and not well-understood. According to National Geographic News, somewhere between 1 in 30 and 1 in 150 people report having seen ball lightning. Reports are numerous, yet verifiable videos are rare. Since the phenomenon is unpredictable, scientists don’t have a lot of data on it.

What Is Ball Lightning?

Ball lightning is a rare and mysterious form of atmospheric electrical phenomenon that appears as a floating, glowing sphere. Most report involve thunderstorms, but sometimes it appears in connection with other electrical events. Unlike the familiar streaks of lightning, ball lightning is a luminous, spherical or pear-shaped object. The sphere persist for several seconds. It typically measures between 10 to 40 centimeters (4 to 16 inches) in diameter, although there are reports of sizes ranging from that of a pea to several meters across. The color varies and sometimes the event produces a sound or odor.

Characteristics of Ball Lightning

Descriptions of ball lightning vary widely, but they share some common characteristics:

  • Colors: Ball lightning exhibits a variety of colors, ranging from red or orange to yellow, white, and even blue and green.
  • Sound: Usually there is a hissing or buzzing sound, though some witnesses report silence.
  • Odor: There have been reports of a sulfurous or ozone smell.
  • Duration and Disappearance: The lifespan of ball lightning is brief, typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to over a minute. The spheres often move along electrical conductors, like fences or wires. Some appear inside aircraft or buildings through closed doors and windows. The sphere may vanish quietly or explosively.
  • Physical Properties: Ball lightning moves erratically, hovers, bounces, or even passes through solid objects like windows and walls without causing damage.
  • Occurrence: Most events occur during thunderstorms. However, some reports involve electrical equipment, rather than weather.

Is Ball Lightning Dangerous? What Happens If You Touch It?

Ball lightning is dangerous due to its unpredictable behavior and potential for explosive dissipation. There are anecdotal reports of harm from close encounters, ranging from minor burns to fatal injuries. If you touch it, maybe nothing happens. More likely, you absorb some of the energy and get shocked or burned.

Water Plasma Ball Lightning
Ball lightning effect from discharging a high-voltage capacitor in water (Sfusare, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Experiments to Reproduce Ball Lightning

Scientists trying to understand ball lightning perform a wide variety of experiments to reproduce its appearance and behavior:

Water Discharge: Some researchers create ball lightning-like phenomena by discharging electricity into water, producing glowing, vapor-filled bubbles that mimic some properties of natural ball lightning.

Wave-Guided Microwaves and Microwave Ovens: Experiments involving microwave cavities produce plasma balls that share characteristics with ball lightning. Similarly, placing a lit candle inside a microwave oven generates plasma that resembles ball lightning.

Silicon Wafers: A notable experiment involve heating silicon wafers and exposing them to electrical discharges. The process forms glowing airborne silicon particles that behave in ways similar to reports of ball lightning.

Scientific Explanations

No one knows for certain how ball lightning works, but there are several theories that attempt to explain it. Here are a few of the most popular:

  • Vaporized Silicon Hypothesis: This theory suggests that ball lightning consists of vaporized silicon burning through oxidation. The spectral signature of ball lightning supports this hypothesis. Potentially, lightning striking the ground could vaporize soil (which contains silicates).
  • Electrically Charged Solid-Core Model: This theory proposes that there is a solid electrically-charged core at the center of ball lightning. A vacuum with an electromagnetic field between the core and an outer electron layer maintains the sphere.
  • Plasma Vortex Theory: This theory describes ball lightning as a plasma that is contained in a vortex ring. The ring gives it stability and a long lifetime compared to typical plasma.
  • Microwave Cavity Hypothesis: Microwaves become trapped inside a plasma bubble. Ionized air keeps the microwaves in place long enough that they generate glowing plasma for several seconds. The ball either fades away or else dramatically explodes when the structure becomes unstable.

Distinctions from Related Phenomena

Sometimes ball lightning gets confused with other similar-appearing phenomena:

Ball Lightning vs. Bead Lightning: Bead lightning is a form of a regular lightning discharge that appears to break into segments of bright, glowing beads. This is a visual effect that occurs under certain conditions during the decay phase of a lightning strike.

Ball Lightning vs. St. Elmo’s Fire: Unlike ball lightning, St. Elmo’s Fire is not a form of lightning at all. Instead, it is a corona discharge or plasma that appears as a blue or violet glow, often seen on pointed objects in stormy weather. It results from a strong electric field ionizing the air around conductive surfaces.


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