Solving the Mystery of Ball Lightning

The human mind is prone to paranoia, exaggeration and staggering leaps of imagination when attempting to explain a newly observed phenomenon. This common tendency of ours has revealed itself in the repeated occurrence of conspiracy theories, UFO ‘sightings’ and folklore like the ‘Loch Ness’ monster myth. So when reports came to light of mysterious, floating balls of crackling blue fire hanging around after electrical storms they were mostly dismissed out of hand.

Fire spirits chasing you into your house?

Preposterous.

‘Ball lightning’ refers to a luminous, typically spherical object that can be anywhere between pea-sized and a few metres in diameter. The phenomenon is closely linked with electrical disturbances, but lasts much longer than a lightning strike; sometimes minutes at a time. Reported behaviour includes rapidly changing altitude when nearing manmade structures, either disappearing silently or exploding violently and leaving behind a stench of sulphur (cause unknown), and manifesting itself around ship masts and on plane wings. It is also allegedly capable of passing through solid glass, to the understandable fright of a number of household residents.

Written reports from as early as the 16th century tell of “8-foot balls of fire striking and entering” the roofs of churches and decimating ship sails, resulting in many casualties. Even more interesting is a story from 1753 about a scientist name Georg Richmann, who was killed whilst experimenting with electricity when ball lightning appeared and travelled along a string into his forehead. His shoes were left in pieces and his living room door blown open. Terrified witness of these and similar occurrences often attributed the ball lightning to vengeful spirits, creating a mythos that revolved around their eerily precise movement.

It was only with the development of video cameras that ball lightning came to be a widely accepted phenomenon, and it took hundreds of confirmed sightings before scientists began to seriously attempt research into the topic. Thorough investigation proved unsurprisingly difficult, however, due to the irregular occurrence of the balls. Much of the collected data has been siphoned from a mess of public observations. As such, relatively little was known until the phenomenon was successfully replicated in laboratory conditions (see above image). No-one is sure whether the man-made ball lightning is representative of the naturally occurring sort, but a number of models and theories describing their behaviour have been suggested.

Recently a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres titled “The Birth of Ball Lightning” presented a mathematical theory that explains how and why it occurs. The author, CSIRO scientist John Lowke, proposed that ball lightning was created when very dense leftover ions were swept to the ground following an electrical storm or disturbance. This theory has become commonly accepted over a number of other models due to its comprehensive explanation of the ball lightning from its creation through to explosive discharge. The driving electric field for the discharge was estimated from witness accounts at about a million volts.

Now there’s something to be excited about.


4 Responses to “Solving the Mystery of Ball Lightning”

  1. Ryan Hodgman says:

    They don’t really pass through glass, they just appear to. The electrical charge on one side of the glass induces a charge on the other side, creating another lightning ball. The first ball then tends to discharge into the house, so it appears to jump through the glass.

    Ball lightning is most commonly observed following intense thunderstorms when the air is dry. A certain degree of humidity precludes the occurrence of the phenomenon because the electrical charge is too easily dissipated. They have been observed both during the day and at night, and are caused by any powerful electrical disturbance (e.g. power-line surges or plane radar use) not just thunderstorms.

  2. RuthBlair says:

    If it follows the path of least resistance, how can it pass through glass? Also, are these balls affected by other weather conditions?

  3. Ryan Hodgman says:

    The ball lightning moves according to the path of least resistance, all to do with the electric fields present in the surrounding environment. This means that they often move in straight lines besides telephone poles and rapidly change altitude when near trees or buildings.

    As a side note, the ball cannot stop moving at any time since the electrical charge it is comprised of oxidises (burns) the air it moves through. This accounts for the smell of sulphur that many people have observed after witnessing ball lightning.

  4. Oliver Whitton says:

    That’s pretty cool, but what part of this theory explains the “purposeful” movement of the ball lightning?