Ball lightning: the coolest thing you’ve never heard of

Update added 23 January 2016

Don’t have enough worries keeping you awake at night? How about worrying about being woken up by a glowing floating ball of light barging into your bedroom in the middle of the night?

At 1:36 a.m. this morning I awoke to find the room bathed in a dim orange light. Whether it was the light that woke me or the violent thunderstorm I cannot decide, but at first I thought someone had come into my bedroom. It was only when I rolled onto my back that I noticed an orange sphere floating some 60 cm [2 ft] from the window and about 1.6 m [5 ft] off the floor near the foot of my bed. I wasn’t sure if I was awake, asleep, dreaming or what – but I started counting.

That’s what happened on June 8, 1974 to P. M. Bagnall, network director of the British Meteor Society. Bagnall had heard of ball lightning before, but never expected to see it himself. He watched the glowing orange ball, about the size of a large grapefruit, slowly float around his room for about 50 seconds. When he put his hand near it, he felt heat radiating from the ball. Here’s what happened next:

Finally the ball moved upwards towards the ceiling, at about the same velocity as it had crossed the room, and passed through it like a Hollywood Ghost. […] I turned the light on but there no signs of burning or any other damage. I hope to God I never see another – at least not under those circumstances!

If you’re thinking, “Hmph, just another deluded ghost story,” you should know that Bagnall’s story is a fairly typical of the thousands of reports of an unexplained atmospheric phenomenon called ball lightning.

Ball lightning looks like a floating glowing fuzzy ball of light, usually a few inches to a few feet in diameter. It floats or moves around rooms, airplanes, open areas – and occasionally through solid objects. It usually lasts for a few seconds or, rarely, minutes, and then disappears, silently, or with a popping sound, or sometimes even a loud explosion and a surge of electricity through nearby objects. This surge often sets on fire, blows up, or electrocutes nearby objects – everything from cows to VCR players to people. Ball lightning usually appears under in the same circumstances as regular old lightning: during major storms, flying through clouds in planes, etc.

Ball what?

If you’ve never heard of ball lightning before, you’re in good company. I’m the kind of person who thinks reasonable small talk includes things like, “I read an entire textbook on ball lightning during my vacation,” so you can imagine what my friends are like. But most of them had never heard of it, making it difficult for me to gush about it.

Since I did, actually, read an entire textbook on ball lightning during my vacation
(Ball Lightning by Mark Stenhoff), and the Wikipedia article on ball lightning is less than riveting reading, I wrote this post to explain why I find ball lightning so freaking fascinating. Most of this post is based on Stenhoff’s remarkably comprehensive, readable, and expensive book. If you don’t have $200 to blow on a textbook and are more interested in the stories than the (very limited) science of ball lightning, I recommend the free ebook of Camille Flammarion’s 1905 opus, Thunder and Lightning.

Ball lightning: myth or science?

Ball lightning is an extremely rare phenomenon – so rare that until recently, most scientists explained it away as afterimages from lightning strikes, clouds of electrified flying insects, or (my favorite) a regular lightning flash “viewed end-on.” I first learned about ball lightning as a little girl from reading the children’s book series Little House on the Prairie, a semi-fictionalized diary about settler life in the American midwest during the 1870’s. During a major snowstorm, Laura and her sisters are playing games in their farmhouse, when:

The stovepipe sharply rattled. Laura looked up and screamed, “Ma! The house is on fire!” A long ball of fire was rolling down the stovepipe. It was bigger than Ma’s ball of yarn. It rolled across the floor as Ma sprang up. She snatched her skirts up and stamped on it. But it seemed to jump through her foot, and it rolled to the knitting needles she had dropped. Ma tried to brush it into the ashpan. It ran in front of her knitting needles, but it followed the needles back. Another ball of fire had rolled down the stovepipe, and another. They rolled across the floor after the knitting needles and did not burn the floor.

I was totally fascinated by this vignette, but I was never quite sure: Did balls of fire really run down settlers’ stovepipes in storms, or was it just a story? After all, “Little House on the Prairie” was heavily rewritten by the author’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to promote Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, so a little fictionalization (or a lot) is to be expected. Since Wikipedia didn’t exist then, the truth about ball lightning remained a tantalizing mystery for most of my childhood.

Personally, I am a sucker for anything thought to be mythological that turns out to be real, like giant squid, or the entire continent of Antarctica. So I was thrilled to discover that not only was ball lightning was real, it’s also as yet poorly understood by scientists. With any luck, scientists will figure out the physics behind ball lightning during my lifetime, a discovery I look forward to as eagerly as most people do the next episode of “Mad Men.”

Ball lightning kills

The ball lightning Laura and her family saw was as fuzzy, playful, and harmless as a kitten. But some ball lightning is fatal:

The last Lord’s day (July 2 1665), as Mr. Hobbs was preaching in his Parish Church of Erpingham, in the afternoon, there did arise a great storm, and there descended the appearance of a great grey ball […] It left a great smoke and stink behind it, and upon the breaking there was a great and hideous outcry in the Church, and in the confusion there was one man found stark dead and many others lamed, who yet continue so. […] One Mr. How who sat above the chancel is lamed and about the top of his thigh in the groin, is [a] round red place and down from that about the breadth of a finger, a red streak to his foot which is very painful and his stocking on the inside is seared, but not without. (Stenhoff, page 74)

Reports of ball lightning slaying terrified parishioners left and right are surprisingly common during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.

On July 11, 1809, about eleven o’clock in the morning, a fireball penetrated into the church of Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers (Basses-Alpes) just as the bell was ringing and a large congregation had taken their seats. Nine persons were killed on the spot and eighty-two others were wounded. All the dogs that had got into the church were killed. A woman who was in a hut on a neighboring hill saw three fireballs descend that day, and [was] sure they would reduce the village to ashes. (Flammarion, pages 60-61)

Undoubtedly, many people thought that the ball lightning was some kind of punishment from their god (or their devil). But there’s a better explanation for ball lightning’s predilection for churches. Ball lighting often happens during violent thunderstorms, and people often report seeing it heading straight for tall pointy things like chimneys. Churches in that time and place had tall pointy steeples, and people often go to church even during thunderstorms. In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that so many church-goers witnessed (or were killed by) ball lightning. Reports tapered off sometime in the 18th century; my personal suspicion is that a combination of lightning rod adoption (invented in 1749 by Benjamin Franklin) and changes in construction are responsible.

Ball lightning is fucking scary

You probably know enough about ball lightning now to be scared shitless of it – as you should be, given that it’s totally unpredictable, floats through walls, and occasionally kills people. But not to worry – ball lightning is extraordinarily rare. You have basically zero chance of ever seeing ball lightning yourself, unless you live in an abandoned 17th century English church, like to take walks in thunderstorms, or pilot aircraft through bad weather on a regular basis (more on this later).

The only quantitative estimate of the frequency of ball lightning was created using automatic photography of the night sky in several midwestern U.S. states for 10 years. The cameras recorded two probable ball lightning events during that time, yielding a frequency estimate that is hilarious just for the units involved: one ball lightning event per “4800 km2 night-years.” (Stenhoff, page 157)

If that’s not rare enough for you, the simplest way to avoid ball lightning is to avoid regular lightning – they are highly correlated, and some scientists believe that most of the major damage ascribed to ball lightning is actually from regular lightning flashes.

Not everyone who sees ball lightning is terrified:

In 1944 when I was 13 years old… We lived about 100 ft [30 m] from a water tower which was struck frequently by lightning. During one storm in the evening, my mother, my two younger brothers, and I saw a ball descend from a chandelier in our living room and settle onto the floor. It was pale yellow, about the size of a football or volleyball, perhaps smaller, and threw off small sparks. […] We wanted to play with it, but my mother told us to keep away from it. It was not all frightening. (Stenhoff, page 171)

Personally, I’d seriously consider donating my left kidney for the chance to see ball lightning, even with moderate chance of death. But I also read 300 page textbooks for fun.

Theories about ball lightning

As Stenhoff delicately puts it, “Ball lightning research remains an immature field of study.” Another commentator is a little more direct: “Unfortunately, a significant fraction of the theoretical literature on ball lightning could best be described as rubbish, so the uninitiated reader should read the literature with more than the usual level of skepticism.” (Stenhoff, page 179) After plowing my way through three chapters of Stenhoff’s reviews of current theories and their shortcomings, I completely agree.

Some vital clues about which theories are worth paying attention to come from reports of ball lightning that forms near aircraft. Here’s a report from a flight attendant in a passenger plane on the way from Berlin to Stuttgart:

Suddenly, a bright, luminous ball appeared inside the pantry on the starboard side, apparently from the service door. It was bluish with a fuzzy edge, about the size of a melon (16 – 18 cm [6 – 7 in] diameter), and traveled quite rapidly about 70 – 80 cm [27 – 31 in] from the floor. It swung down the passenger aisle and having traveled about 3 m [3 ft] down the aisle, it disappeared, seeming to pass through the port side of the aircraft. Passengers seated in the front row saw it. (Stenhoff, pages 115-116)

Ball lightning reports from aircraft are remarkably consistent, and also totally cool. The ball forms in front of or inside the forward part of the aircraft, hangs there for a while, and then often travels towards the rear at about the same speed of ball lightning on the ground (relative to the aircraft itself). It often passes through the metal cockpit door and is independently sighted by passengers or crew as it travels down the center aisle and out the tail, or veers off to exit over the wing. Occasionally it will singe a pilot’s eyebrows.

Here’s another story, from a Russian plane flying near the Black Sea. Shortly after taking off, a ball of fire about 10 cm [4 in] across appeared, touching the plane in front of the cockpit:

It disappeared with a deafening noise, but re-emerged several seconds later in the passenger’s lunge, after piercing in an uncanny way through the air-tight metal wall. The fireball slowly 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. (Stenhoff, page 115)

Ball lightning around planes forms in the same conditions associated with normal lightning strikes to planes, just like on the ground. Irritatingly, most ball lightning theories don’t even attempt to account for the formation of ball lightning inside what is basically a hermetically sealed Faraday cage, much less its travel through a metal cockpit door.

One of the few theories that is actually consistent with most of the commonly observed behavior of ball lightning – passes through solid objects, moves sideways or hangs in the air, forms inside metal aircraft – is Handel and Leitner’s model, described by Stenhoff this way: “A maser-caviton ball lightning model in which ball lightning is a nonlinear, localized high-field soliton, known as a high-pressure caviton, forming a cavity surrounded by plasma. The source of VHF energy in the model is an atmospheric maser.” (Stenhoff, page 235)

A maser-caviton what? I don’t even pretend to understand this theory, but Stenhoff points out that one of its interesting qualities is that it predicts that ball lightning that forms inside aircraft or other closed spaces will have very low energy content and be unable to cause much damage – which indeed, matches most reports. Since most theories are incompatible with ball lightning forming inside an airplane at all, much less why it would be less powerful, this theory has more going for it than most.

Since ball lightning in aircraft is relatively well-documented, safe, and slightly more predictable than other forms, I wonder: Could ball lightning be systematically reproduced and studied safely by flying well-instrumented drones in the weather conditions that are known to produce ball lightning? Getting the budget to do so is another matter entirely, but learning how to produce glowing balls of light that float through walls? Seems worth it!

The sociology of ball lightning

I’m just as interested in the sociology of the scientific study of ball lightning. Why did it take so long for scientists to take seriously reports like this one?

On September 10, 1845, at about two in the afternoon, in the course of a violent storm, a fireball came down the chimney into a room in a house in the village of Salagnac (Creuse). A child and three women who were in the room suffered no harm from it. Then it rolled into the middle of the kitchen, and passed near the feet of a young peasant who was standing in it. After which it went into an adjoining room, and disappeared without leaving any trace. The women tried to persuade the man to go in and see whether he could not stamp it out, but he had once allowed himself to be electrified in Paris, and thought it prudent to refrain. (Stenhoff, page 80)

Stenhoff points out that ball lightning shares one characteristic with meteorites: they are rare, short-lived events that can’t be reproduced on demand, and are rarely observed by scientists. The vast majority of the witnesses are of low social status: peasants, housewives (gendered term used intentionally), children, etc. While we now accept meteorites as an established fact of science, scientists sneered at illiterate peasants’ reports of stones falling out of the clear blue sky for decades. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that scientists started taking meteorite reports seriously. (Stenhoff, page 177)

Ironically, Stenhoff commits the sin of disregarding eye witness reports even as he argues against it. While discussing the reliability of eye witness reports of a major meteor strike, he mentions as an example of unreliability that many observers report a sizzling noise at the same time they saw the meteors traverse the sky. That was believed to be impossible in 1999, when this book was published – after all, sound travels much more slowly than light, and the meteors are dozens of miles away. However, in 2001, scientists realized that meteors create very low frequency (VLF) radio waves as they travel through the atmosphere. These waves can cause things near the ground to vibrate – like hair – creating a sizzling or fizzing noise.

One can argue that reports from scientists should be more highly regarded because scientists are trained to be better observers. But that argument doesn’t apply to minor nobility such as the Marquis of Malaspina (Stenhoff, page 90) or the former Emperor of Brazil (Stenhoff, page 177), whose reports were also given greater weight than those of dozens of “peasants.” I myself appealed to your respect for higher status observers by starting this article with a report from “the network director of the British Meteor Society.”

Diversity and respect make for better science

Stenhoff encourages scientists to take seriously consistent eyewitness reports of phenomena that doesn’t match current scientific theory, for both science’s sake and for their own careers. He quotes from The Furtherance of Medical Research by Alan Gregg:

One wonders whether the rare ability to be completely attentive to, and to profit by, Nature’s slight deviation from the conduct expected of her is not the secret of the best research minds and one that explains why some men turn to most remarkably good advantage seemingly trivial accidents. Behind such attention lies an unremitting sensitivity.

It would be a shame if our prejudice and bigotry prevented us from discovering the science behind such extraordinarly interesting and cool phenomena as ball lightning. Yet one more reason why diversity of scientists and respect for the dignity of all human beings produces better science.

Update 23 January 2016

Ball lightning has now been recorded! Lightning researchers Jianyong Cen, Ping Yuan, and Simin Xue accidentally videotaped ball lightning while doing research on regular lightning on the Qinghai Plateau. The also got a spectrogram of the ball lightning, which showed emission lines from silicon, carbon, and iron. The researchers plan to try to reproduce ball lightning in the lab.

4 thoughts on “Ball lightning: the coolest thing you’ve never heard of”

  1. You said yourself the science is “very limited”, I would rephrase that as “nonexistent”. There’s nothing beyond a lot of eyewitness reports and some baseless speculation on how ball lighting works. How is ball lightning any more credible than the thousands of UFO reports each year?

    1. If you’d like to know more about the science of ball lightning, I suggest reading some of the scientific literature on it, such as Stenhoff’s well-regarded textbook.

  2. Awesome. I also have a soft spot for those mysteries-turned real! This book looked just great, deep enough not to feel like pop science but also full of equations. At least not overwhelmingly so.

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