Ball Lightning

We've all heard of it, we all believe it exists - but what does science have to say?

Filed under General Science, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #192
February 9, 2010
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Dive under your desk and take cover: A wicked orb of ball lightning is banging around your room! Or, maybe it's just a peaceful, quietly hovering ball of warm light. Or, maybe it's a sparking basketball sized globe chasing you across the plains at night. Or, maybe it's a tiny flaming ball that speeds along and suddenly burns itself out. Whatever it is, it's weird, and it seems to be the first explanation many people will reach for when they hear anything about a round light source: Ball lightning. What is it? More importantly, is it anything at all? What does science have to say on the matter?

Not much, evidently. And, at the same time, way too much. For as many theories as there are attempting to explain it, there is no agreed-upon description of what they're trying to explain. There are innumerable eyewitness accounts, and almost nothing in common among them. For all the scientists who maintain that it's real, none of them has an accepted theory or any testable evidence. For those who cling to the understanding that ball lightning is indeed an accepted phenomenon, consider these points:

  1. Ball lightning is not reproducible in the lab [microwave oven plasma doesn't count - BD]. All known forms of electrical discharge are.

  2. There is no standard description of what ball lightning looks like or how it behaves. Reports of its color, its size, its speed, its sound, the conditions under which it appears, its behavior, its shape, and its duration are all over the map.

  3. Not a single photograph or video of ball lightning exists that is considered reliable and not otherwise explainable.

  4. Electromagnetic theory makes no prediction that anything like ball lightning need exist. It does predict all known forms of electrical discharge.

No matter how reliable any one given report might be, it is mired in a sea of other contradictory reports, all describing something very different. This means that either most reports are wrong, or everyone's seeing a different phenomenon. Are some of them actually seeing ball lighting? Maybe, but since we don't know which ones, we don't know what kind of characteristics ball lightning might have; and thus even the anecdotal evidence is too widely at variance to support a single explanation.

In 1997, a reader wrote into Scientific American's Ask the Experts column to ask if ball lightning is real. Two experts responded, both giving widely varying descriptions for what it looks like, how it behaves, and where it comes from, but both credulously identifying all such reports as ball lightning. They both had decent sounding hypotheses, though Scientific American referred to them as theories, a status I don't think they've achieved. Both experts, though, displayed what I would consider a red flag. They both speak quite casually using the term "ball lightning" with confidence that it is a real, single phenomenon: Ball lightning has been seen here and here, ball lightning does this or that. In other words, grouping contradictory reports including hoax claims and misidentification of known phenomena all together and explaining them with another unknown, behind which there's no accepted theory.

The first expert, Paul Handel at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, is a long-standing proponent of the hypothesis that ball lightning is a manifestation of a maser caused by regular lightning striking within a standing wave of UHF or microwave radiation. In 1975 he developed what he calls "Maser-Soliton Theory" to describe this. From his description in the Scientific American column:

...The maser is generated by a population inversion induced in the rotational energy levels of the water molecules by the short field pulse associated with streak lightning. The large volume of air that is affected by the strike makes it difficult for photons to escape before they cause 'microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation'... Unless the volume of air is very large or else is enclosed in a conducting cavity, ...collisions between the molecules will consume all the energy of the population inversion. If the volume is large, the maser can generate a localized electrical field or soliton that gives rise to the observed ball lightning. Such a discharge has not yet been created in the laboratory, however.

If you find yourself asking "What the heck is he talking about?" you're not alone. As very few scientists outside of some Russian colleagues of Handel's have written about his "Maser-Soliton Theory", it's fair to say that it appears he has yet to convince any significant number of scientists of its validity. The requirement that there happen to be a standing wave of electromagnetic radiation (of unknown origin) when the lightning decides to strike is one reason.

Handel is not the only one pointing at microwaves, though. The Internet is full of instructions for creating ball lightning in your microwave oven, none of which I recommend that you attempt. Placing carbon veil or fine steel wool in a microwave oven will create a glowing plasma that will damage the roof of your oven unless contained within pyrex. Burning a candle flame with carbon pencil rods or carbon charred toothpicks will produce a similar effect. But referring to these kitchen experiments as "ball lightning" is a bit of a strain. First, the plasma created is not shaped like a ball. Second, being extremely hot (dangerously hot), it rises upward, which is a behavior rarely seen in ball lightning reports. Third, it requires a high-powered microwave oven doing its thing, which probably explains why Paul Handel's "Maser-Soliton Theory"has not produced observable effects in nature.

The second expert who offered his thoughts in Scientific American was John Lowke at Australia's Institute of Industrial Technologies. He proposed the mechanism to be the rapid discharge of electrical energy from a lightning bolt that has struck the ground. As the electrical charge disperses through the ground, it creates a plasma similar to the more familiar corona discharge of St. Elmo's Fire. He proposed that the movement of the ball would be determined by the speed at which the charge moves through the ground, which could explain why some reports state the ball lightning moved against the direction of the wind. But once again, nobody has ever been able to produce this effect artificially, and Lowke acknowledged that "There is no generally accepted theory of ball lightning."

The corona discharge hypothesis is the most interesting, as St. Elmo's Fire is a well understood and well established phenomenon with a sound underlying theory. It's the same thing that makes a fluorescent light glow. When there's a big difference between the electrical charge in the ground and the atmosphere, electrons flow from one to the other. They do this most efficiently out the tips of sharp conductive points; masts on a ship being the most familiar example. Given a strong enough field off this tip, the air is turned into a plasma that fluoresces. St. Elmo's Fire is blue or purple in air. If our atmosphere was neon, it would be reddish orange, and so on for all the other colors that fluorescent tubes come in.

But St. Elmo's Fire has an obvious power source: The powerful flow of electrons coming from the conductive point. Ball lightning, while descriptions of its color are often similar to that of St. Elmo's Fire, has no apparent power source. This might make the microwave hypothesis more attractive, but we have no theory that would explain the concentration of the effect in a sphere, and no theory to explain why there might happen to be a standing microwave. Making light requires energy. Any valid theory of ball lightning has to include the power source for all that light.

No discussion of ball lightning, or any other electrical phenomenon for that matter, is complete with the obligatory mention of the patron saint of eccentric electrical theorists, Nikola Tesla. The popular rumor you always hear is that Tesla was able to produce ball lightning at will in his lab. Regarding what he called "electric fireballs," Tesla reported in 1904 in the journal Electrical World and Engineer "I have succeeded in determining the mode of their formation and producing them artificially." Sadly for the world of science, Tesla's own claims on this matter were never evidenced and have never had any reliable corroboration. There's one oft-repeated quote attributed to Tesla, which seems to be a proposed explanation for fireballs he observed and hoped to recreate:

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

...It became apparent that the fireballs resulted from the interaction of two frequencies.... This condition acts as a trigger which may cause the total energy of the powerful longer wave to be discharged in a infinitesimally small interval of time... and is released into surrounding space with inconceivable violence. It is but a step, from the learning how a high frequency current can explosively discharge a lower frequency current, to using the principle to design a system in which these explosions can be produced by intent.

Separately, in his Colorado Springs Notes, Tesla attributed ball lightning to resistively heated particles in the air. Just as a light bulb's filament produces heat and light from electrical resistance, so might a carbon particle in the air if exposed to high current. It's a fine speculation, but such a fireball would rise and flame out rapidly (like the plasma created in a microwave), it would not hold a ball shape and hover; even if it did, it would require an extraordinary power source and the presence of carbon particles floating about. That's inconsistent with most ball lightning reports, as are explosions of "inconceivable violence". So really none of what Tesla reported bears much similarity to the ball lightning reports that we commonly hear.

So then, in summary, what about this popular trend of suggesting ball lightning as an explanation for a strange report of a hovering ball of light? It's a little hard to justify. As ball lightning has no established properties, it cannot be argued to be a probable match for any given report. It is fair to say that it's likely that one or more unknown phenomena exist that have triggered eyewitness accounts of hovering balls of light, but there's insufficient theory to support assigning these accounts a positive identification of ball lightning. Indeed, as ball lightning can only honestly be described as an unknown, it would be illogical to use it as an explanation for any report.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Barry, J. Ball Lightning and Bead Lighting: extreme forms of atmospheric electricity. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.

Handwerk, B. "Ball Lightning: A Shocking Scientific Mystery." National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 31 May 2006. Web. 25 May. 2011. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/060531-ball-lightning.html>

Stenhoff, Mark. Ball Lightning: An Unsolved Problem in Atmospheric Physics. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 1999.

Tesla, N. Colorado Springs Notes. Beograd: Nolit, 1978. 333.

Trefil, J. Ball Lightning, UFOs, and Other Strange Things in the Sky. New York: Scribner's, 1987.

Uman, M., Handel, P. "Ask the Experts." Scientific American. Scientific American, 18 Jul. 1997. Web. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=periodically-i-hear-stori>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Ball Lightning." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 9 Feb 2010. Web. 28 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4192>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 99 comments

I can tell you that this thing we call "ball lightning" definitely exists because I (and my mom) got a really good look at one back in about 1960. However if you want to call it by a different name - plasma orb - or whatever, that's fine with me. I was about 12 years old at the time.
Our sighting was during the daytime, at home near Milwaukee Wisconsin. I don't remember exactly what the weather was like but it was not raining. My mom and I looked out my bedroom window. We saw, directly across the street, hovering over our neighbor's driveway about 120 feet away from us, a bright sizzling orb. It was maintaining height about 5 feet above the driveway, slowly moving towards the neighbor's back door, at slow walking speed. It was about the size of a basketball. It was quite white, not really colored. The driveway was uphill, but the orb kept pretty constant clearance to the ground. We watched it for 5 to 10 seconds, over which period it moved about 20 feet. When it was maybe 10 feet from the house it exploded and disappeared. It was very loud, similar to a nearby lightning strike in loudness. It was totally amazing. No damage done however.

Gary Werner, Redmond/WA
August 17, 2013 12:56pm

BBC News have just posted a story about scientists in Colorado creating ball lightning in a lab.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23712393

Tom, Bristol, UK
August 19, 2013 5:28am

http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2056307433

search for the pdf file down the page. I witnessed ball lightning at Ballybrit racecourse with about 20K people that evening. Incredible sight, like a bright burning sun low in the sky.

Dara Quinn, Thailand
September 20, 2013 1:46pm

I thought those peaceful floating blue orbs in the swamp were swamp gas......

My friend Kathy maintains that floating or flaming or glowing orbs are ghosts.

As far as ball lightning goes, I seem to remember a film clip of plasma (super-heated matter) in an intense magnetic field in a lab experiment that could (based on appearance) be reasonably termed "ball lightning." The experiment looked like a dandy way to get your face fried off should you be careless with the equipment.

I believe the real problem here is (as is all too common) inaccurate or sloppy use of language to describe phenomena that is unusual and/or not understood by the observer. I have similar trouble with the reports I read daily at work where "refused" and "denied" are used interchangably. I point out that the words do not mean the same thing in the dictionary, and they respond that I am nit-picking.

Brian, you are quite right. Let's define our words first and then go to obsevations that meet the definitions. (Good luck with that: the term is so interesting and exotic that it is likely to be used for every possible reported weirdness that will ever hit print.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
December 10, 2013 9:23am

My wife and I witnessed a phenomenon in a motel room in Phoenix Arizona. Neither of us are scientist and could not explain the situation.
While trying to sleep, I noticed a fuzzy greenish ball whizzing around our room against the walls. I awoke my wife and she saw it also. The room was pitch dark. There was no thunderstorm outside. It was the size of a tennis ball and produced a streaming tail.

I arose and I suppose quite foolishly tried to approach nearer to it at which point my wife turned on the table lamp next to our bed. Whereupon the ball dove into the hair dryer hanging in the bathroom (our room was a suite and the ball managed to go through the kitchen and bathroom walls).
I have since researched the phenomenon of the Phoenix Lights and wonder whether this is what we saw.

Paul Kussmann Sr., Waterboro Me.
December 10, 2013 11:07am

Detailed personal account of my own ball lightning experience here: http://wp.me/p32gxq-9

Jon Connell, NYC
December 11, 2013 3:38am

I'll just leave this here.
https://medium.com/looking-up/b594b6ffea37

dickwad, here
January 17, 2014 11:10am

This occurred in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (Harare, Zimbabwe) around 1960, when I was about 12. My friend Peter and I were playing with his electric train set in a room in his house when a typical African thunderstorm hit the area. Unthinkingly we continued to play until we noticed a bluish, translucent ball about 6 inches in diameter hovering about 8 or 10 inches above the tracks. Neither of us saw how it appeared. We backed off in fear, belatedly remembering tales of lightning danger during storms. We observed it for some minutes as it slowly followed a straight length of track. At the next corner it continued for a short distance away from the track and then disappeared in a small, silent, explosive dissipation. That night I told my Dad about it and he informed me that it was "Ball Lightning".
In Jan 2014 ball lightning was apparently captured on camera and its spectrum analysed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_lightning#Direct_measurements_of_natural_ball_lightning

Jack Swalwell, Ogden, UT
January 27, 2014 11:56am

My Daughter and I along with 4 or 5 other people saw a lightning ball on sunday 9th feb 2014. We was parked opposite a takeaway along a street in Adinkerke Belgium when a bright white ball a bit smaller than a football surrounded by light came from behind and then when just in front of my van and in the middle of the street between us and the shop about 5 foot off the ground we then heard a very loud bang like a cannon then it disappeared. The shop owners came out and 2 walkers stopped too we all looked about and at each other in amazement

Denise Knight, Northampton
February 11, 2014 2:53pm

Natural Ball Lightning Recorded By Scientists For First Time Ever ...
www.huffingtonpost.com/.../ball-lightning-recorded...‎
The Huffington Post
Jan 19, 2014 - In a new paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, Chinese researchers say they recorded ball lightning during a thunderstorm in ...

So, this Skeptoid entry needs updating?

Dixie, Portsmouth NH
February 25, 2014 11:09am

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