An explanation for ball lightning?

Ball lightning, laboratory experiment, Gatchina

Ball lightning, laboratory experiment, Gatchina (Photo credit: yuriybrisk)

I wonder how long it will be before Al Gore tries to blame ball lightning on “dirty weather”? A neat video follows. From CSIRO:

Goodness, gracious, great balls of lightning

Sightings of balls of lightning have been made for centuries around the world – usually the size of a grapefruit and lasting up to twenty seconds – but no explanation of how it occurs has been universally accepted by science.  Even more mysterious are sightings of balls of lightning forming on glass and appearing in homes and in aeroplanes.

CSIRO scientist John Lowke has been studying ball lightning since the sixties. He’s never seen it, but has spoken to eye witnesses and in a new scientific paper(paywalled at AGU, don’t bother) he gives the first mathematical solution explaining the birth of ball lightning – and how it can pass through glass.

Previous theories have cited microwave radiation from thunderclouds, oxidising aerosols, nuclear energy, dark matter, antimatter, and even black holes as possible causes. John disputes these theories.

He proposes ball lightning is caused when leftover ions (electric energy), which are very dense, are swept to the ground following a lightning strike. As for how they pass through glass, he says this is a result of a stream of ions accumulating on the outside of a glass window and the resulting electric field on the other side excites air molecules to form a ball discharge.

According to John ball lightning is rare, but it has been witnessed in Australia many times. People just don’t realise what it is when they see it.

NOTE: This video was provided by CSIRO in their press release. I don’t agree that all of the scenes in the video are relevant to the issue. Take it with a grain of salt. Anthony


For the record, here is what I sent to CSIRO:

Dear Simon,

I’m writing to complain about what I consider a sloppy job related to this press release as it appears on Eurekalert:

Public Release: 18-Oct-2012

Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres

Expalination for ball lightning

Australian scientists have unveiled a new theory which explains the mysterious phenomenon known as ball lightning.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Contact: Simon Hunter


CSIRO Australia


1. The word Explanation is misspelled.

2. The title of the paper is not given, forcing anyone who wants to read it to have to figure out what it is by searching JGR.

3. The link to the paper immediately goes to a login page. Paywalls and press releases don’t work well together. At least provide the abstract if the paper is paywalled.

4. As I understand it, CSIRO is a publicly funded agency, so it would make more sense and be in the public interest to make a full copy of the paper available on the CSIRO website.

There has been a trend elsewhere for this sort of incompleteness in conveying science to the public, so I feel I must point it out.

Thank you for your consideration.

Anthony Watts



newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Hey I’ve seen those globes of glowing material dancing across the floor when arc welding is going on. After they stop glowing, you find a mangled wad of metal. Ball lightning eh? (Nope).
There rest of them seem to be common UFOs…

Sean Peake

Definitely one of the coolest things I’ve seen on this site.

About 20 years ago I was in a kitchen with some friends during some very intense nearby lightning activity. It was mid afternoon so the overhead kitchen light was off. At one point I had the feeling that things were rapidly getting worse and I called out “Get Down!” and crouched down myself. The window suddenly lit up oddly with a moderate flickery purplish glowing and then the kitchen overhead light ( I *think* a round tubular fluorescent ) started to light up kind of halfway redly in a flickering sort of glow. The whole “event” lasted perhaps 2 to 5 seconds. There MAY have been a big thunderclap immediately afterwards but I’m not sure — there was no “lightning flash” however.
Soooo… was there a big ball of purple lightning hovering outside that window? Dunno… but maybe!

I once observed ball lightning during a violent thunderstorm in Nebraska from a basement window. It was glowing ball of energy about 4 feet off the ground which followed the road which was concrete with embedded wire mesh. The ball of energy actually made a right turn at the corner, following the road and disappeared over a small hill in front of our house. I could hardly believe my eyes.

G. Karst

So… how long before this armor penetrating plasma energy is weaponized? GK

Wm T Sherman

Dense ions that fall to the ground? That makes no sense at all.


I used to work on radar in the army, as a technician. All the dishes had an old flourescent tube laying around for safety. If you ever had to go in front of the dish, you would hold up the tube, if the dish was transmitting the tube would light up.
It’s difficult to describe how spooky that is…to see an disconnected light start to glow and flicker like that.

My sisters kids saw basketball-sized ball lightning in their home following a lightning strike. If I remember right, it floated down their hallway. Her kids were pretty young and it totally freaked them out.


I once saw what I am convinced was ball lightning. Back in late 1957 I was based in Catterick Camp, Yorkshire. A group of us were returning to barracks from the mess hall when someone yelled, “Look at that”. I saw a glowing orange ball, quite bright, but not dazzling. It was still daytime. Looked to be about the size of a football. It seemed to be travelling along the ridge of the roof quite sedately. It seemed to bounce twice, quite gently, and then vanished into some trees beyond the barrack. Then there was an almighty bang! Startled us to say the least. Somebody came round the corner and said a tree had been struck by lightning. It seems they saw a bright flash. We went to look at the tree. There was a cut in the bark of the tree, starting at about roof height and running almost straight down the trunk. What was surprising was the cut, very narrow at the top but almost a foot wide at ground level. You could peel the bark back and see the bare smooth shiny wood. There was no sign of burning. Also the ground at the base of the tree looked as though something had sliced down into the ground. We couldn’t how deep, just the broken soil. A squaddie who had been in the washroom said all the taps sparkled just before the bang.


EternalOptimist says:
October 19, 2012 at 9:32 am
Hah! I used to work on the Decca transmitting stations. At the master station, we’d hand a flourescent tube to a visitor and ask for help to change it at mast base. As we walked towards the mast, at night time of course, the multipulse would cause the tube to flash. Much panic. We would then sooth the visitor with copious draughts of Scotlands finest.


Make your own. Light a birthday candle and put it in the microwave. You might want to use an old microwave

Gene Selkov

I’ve seen one two, after a lightning strike against a power line. The ball moved away from the power line for a little over 10 seconds on a trajectory that resembled a gradually condensing sine wave, then rushed back towards the line and expired with a bang.
Through a crack in the paywall: Lowke’s proposition is that the ball forms due to the ionisation of the air in the vicinity of the earth under the influence of the ground currents following a cloud-to-earth lightning strike. This paper explains possible charge distribution after a lightning strike and how that change can cause localised ionisation of air based on the reaction model proposed in the previous paper ( — see under 2. Theory; not paywalled)


In recent years there have been laboratory creations of luminous floating balls, persisting for up to a second or two.
Under some conditions, apparently a strong electrical discharge (eg, ‘normal’ lightning) can cause a plasma of silicon atoms to form into coherent, luminous ball. I’ve read that silicon can be a component of certain soils,
This explanation might be the basis for some of the the ball lightning reports, throughout history.
My quick search on the database, turned up a couple dozen recent articles on ball lightning, in some well respected journals.


Anthony my guess on the press release and paywall problem is the journal is trying to drumm up buisness and the press are happy to help! Ball lightning is something i have not heard of , but is an interesting phenomenon.

Mike Wilson

I know someone that was abducted by ball lightning. They said some very shocking procedures were performed on them. /sarc


A long time ago I saw a ball lightning.
Around 60 years ago, during a thunderstorm my grandfather was putting some coal on the living room fire with a metal shovel. A round glowing ball around fthe size of a tennis ball came down the chimney, bounced off the fire, hit the shovel and exploded with a loud bang and a bright flash of light. It was most certainly not a bolt of lightning, it was clearly a discrete ball and was travelling fairly slowly. My grandfather received a fairly substantial electric shock and the shovel was partially melted where the ball had hit it.


EternalOptimist says:
October 19, 2012 at 9:32 am
Try the same trick under high power transmission lines.


The question is how can an ionized mass stay together in the face of the powerful electrostatic repulsive forces that would act instantaneously to blow a ball of ionized material apart.
We’ve been trying to do just that for 50 years at great expense in the fusion program, with very slow progress.
So there must be more to the phenomenon than just ionized gas.

Brian R

This guy is a fraud of the greatest magnitude. I can’t believe that anybody, I mean ANYBODY with even a partial knowledge of science wouldn’t understand that his “Lab created ball lightning” is just hot splatter from an arc welder. An arc welder that you can readily see in the video, welding rod and all. The reason it “dances” across the floor is because the floor is concrete. Concrete absorbs water. The hot ball of metal splatter is about 2000deg F. When hot ball of metal contacts water in concrete it creates steam that causes the ball to “dance”.
The only scientific wonder here is, how on earth is it possible this guy is smart enough to write.


My father had told me he saw ball lightning on an airplane. There was an electrical storm outside, and, from his aisle seat, he suddenly saw a glowing ball bouncing down the aisle toward the rear of the plane and disappear at the end of the plane. He said it was the most bizarre thing he had ever seen.

Steve C

At last, an explanation of ball lightning. Males around the world can now hope that doctors will soon find an effective treatment for this painful and debilitating condition.
/misunderstanding 🙂

Gerry Parker

I was watching a storm outside my window as a youth, and oberved lightning strike the ground not too far away. The stroke decayed into a string of bright balls that dissipated over about two seconds, but did not fly around or anything like that. I also received a sharp shock to my nose which was touching the metal window screen at the time (lesson learned).
Later in life, while driving I observed a similar thing in a close strike on a tree.
I don’t think any of the things in the video look like what I’ve read about descriptions of ball lightning, and think I have a better explaination for most of them.
Gerry Parker


“He proposes ball lightning is caused when leftover ions (electric energy), which are very dense, are swept to the ground following a lightning strike. As for how they pass through glass, he says this is a result of a stream of ions accumulating on the outside of a glass window and the resulting electric field on the other side excites air molecules to form a ball discharge.”
Ions “are very dense”?? No, they are normal molecules or atoms carrying an electric charge. No more than any other gas. In fact they are less dense because like charges repel each other and if there was a mix of oppositely charged particles there would very soon not be any, as they would be attracted to each other and neutralise.
For the same reason any group of ions will disperse rapidly unless strenuous efforts are made to confine them. Were that not so, we’d already have fusion-powered electricity generation. I really don’t swallow the idea of free-floating plasmas passing through glass.


I think you accidentally misspelled “incompentence” as “incompleteness”.

cui bono

I think this was J. B. S. Haldane, biologist and polymath, but could be wrong.
To Haldane: ” I hear you’ve been doing some work on ball lightning”.
Haldane (revealing burn scarring): “No, ball lightning did some work on me”.

Richard Campbell

When I was a young lad, I witnessed ball lighting. A lightning strike had hit an apple tree in
our back yard in upstate New York. The tree was cleaved in two and from the still standing section four or five luminous balls about the size of beach balls came dancing down towards the ground, fluttering about, getting smaller all the while, by the time I could catch my Grandfathers attention
they had disappeared; but I saw itt plain as day!


Tesla’s Thoughts on Ball Lightning Production:
Tesla’s Production of Electric Fireballs:

Give me a break! That object around 0:40-0:50 is a BIRD. You can see the wings flapping!

David, UK

GeoLurking says:
October 19, 2012 at 9:08 am
…The rest of them seem to be common UFOs.

My thoughts too. Objects of unknown identity, therefore essentially UFOs in the literal sense (which is not to say little green men from Mars, necessarily).

jim R

Saw ball lightning way back in 1975. Huge bolt of lightening struck the Ironbridge here in Shropshire and a ball came crackling off it. Was so weird. Down in a deep (400′) valley yet there it was. It fizzed and hummed for about a minute or so. Was about the size of an apple and it just disappeared in a puff. Wish I had a camera.

Randall Harris

One day my wife and I were standing in the front doorway while it was raining outside. After a close lightning strike, we saw a ball of light about the size of a volley ball that was traveling along the power lines in front of the house. It was like a globe of plasma that was just dancing along the wire. When it reached the power pole it slowly went down the pole and stayed on the ground doing it little dance routine (like it was discharging into the ground or something). Altogether it lasted about 30 seconds. It acted as if it were charged and as it touched things the discharge would keep it moving along. I thought that was something called Saint Elmo’s Fire.

William Grubel

In 20 years of flying on Air Force RC-135’s I”ve experienced ball lighting twice. Both times it formed in the front of the aircraft and slowly moved past all the electronics to the rear of the aircraft and then just disappeared. Nobody quite had the nerve to do anything but sit still and watch but it was pretty exciting! I’m not sure how a bird at 35,000 feet making 350 knots plays in to the idea of dense leftover electrons falling to the ground, but ball lighting and St Elmo’s fire are two of the coolest things you will ever see!

Third person experience, but a good one:
30 years ago I’m sitting in an Aircraft Systems class at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University when the instructor, ex USAF, related a story of him piloting a military version of a DC-6 with a load of Scottish para-troopers. They were in transit, not jumping. All were wearing kilts, sitting down both sides of the aircraft facing the center aisle, as para-troopers do. He said he was watching St Elmo’s fire dancing on the propellers; more than usual. Then a “ball of electricity” rose from the throttles at the cockpit pedestal and “bounced” down the center aisle clear to the rear of the passenger compartment, turned around and bounced back forward and went back down the throttle quadrant where it came from. He said shortly after this there was a great flash of light outside. The reaction of the kilted Scotsmen was the punchline to the story. They all pinched their knees tight at the sight of this ball.
He said it was St Elmo’s fire (static electricity). I always thought of ball lightning. I wondered if they were the same phenomenon.

Bob Diaz

The video has an interesting explanation about these balls:


cui bono

GeoLurking says (October 19, 2012 at 9:08 am)
The rest of them seem to be common UFOs…
Don’t mention UFOs! Uncle Sigmund Lew will be pointing and shouting “told you so!” at us. 🙂

There was a fellow back in the not-quite early days of cold fusion who was looking into creating ball lighting as a plasma confinement mechanism for fusion power. I haven’t heard about his work in ages, but he was very active on USENET for a while.
While trying to see what happened with his “plasmoids,” I happened across: (way too brief) (don’t try this at home. Oh wait, it is a home experiment. Try it at your friend’s home or in your employer’s microwave oven!)
Oh, here we go. Paul M Koloc, and plasmak. (The two .pdfs are interesting, much more interesting than the CSIRO stuuf, I’m sure.) (bad link, though I got it from Google. DNS says it’s good until 2014, so likely server problem.)


My father was a radio operator in the merchant marine pre WW2. He talked on several occasions about the ball lighning he would witness on shipboard, running up and down the long wire antennas that were rigged between masts. Apparently quite common at sea. Also, I remember there was at one time a USAF “Ball Lightning Research Station” along the Interstate [best I remember] west of Salt Lake City. Don’t know if it still exists or not but would be interesting to dig and see if any papers were released in the public domain.
Anthony, I appreciate and enjoy your fine work with this website. meaux

Stop! I’ve wanted to see ball lightning ever since I first read about it, probably in “Stranger than Science” back when I was 12 or 13. It’s no fair that so many readers have seen it. No fair at all! Pout! /rant
It’s likely why I took an interest in Koloc’s studies.

One night in 1965 over the US in an Air Force B-52G the nose of the aircraft was aglow with St Elmo’s fire. Suddenly a glowing ball about 3 inches diameter leaped out of the APR-14 receiver antenna connection and crossed to my right and went out through the gunners radar circuit breaker panel blowing all the circuits, leaving behind a puff of smoke. There was a loud bang when it exited out the circuit breaker panel. Total time was about 3 seconds. The nose of the B-52 continued to glow with St Elmo’s fire for several hours and the gunner’s radar display was dead for the rest of the flight.

Richard111 says:
October 19, 2012 at 9:49 am
…. Much panic. We would then sooth the visitor with copious draughts of Scotlands finest.

Feel free to “panic” me whenever you like, I approve of your method of soothing.


Forget the beef about the paywalled paper. The video by itself was way cool to watch.
Thanks for that one!

Mike H

I saw those many times while at University. Usually VERY early on Sat and/or Sun. mornings while “walking” home to go to bed. They were obviously much more active in the 80’s so AGW has slowed them down. Haven’t noticed them as much since my days of higher education ended. 🙂

timothy sorenson

45 years ago, my grandmother claims that a ball of lightening floated outside of her kitchen window and then came through the open screen and hit her. My mom, saw how her arm had the hair burnt off one side of her forearm and upper arm. And outside of the kitchen the screen was singed in what appeared to be a circular segment.


etudiant says:
October 19, 2012 at 10:17 am
The question is how can an ionized mass stay together in the face of the powerful electrostatic repulsive forces that would act instantaneously to blow a ball of ionized material apart.
We’ve been trying to do just that for 50 years at great expense in the fusion program, with very slow progress.
So there must be more to the phenomenon than just ionized gas.

I had a physics teacher assert that, because of the very points you make, that “ball lightening” was a myth. I kept my mouth shut because not that long before, I had been watching ball lightening or a UFO or something very bright against a black, cloudy night sky with a telescope. It passed between my window and a distant tree, so I guessed at a size of around a football to a soccer ball. I really would like a genuine explanation.

Eustace Cranch

I saw it as a kid in the mid 60’s, watching a thunderstorm on a mountain ridge visible from my grandparents’ porch. Several rapid bolts of lightning hit the ridge, then there was an orange ball floating slowly over the treetops, fading after about 10 seconds. And no, it wasn’t an optical afterimage: when I looked away it stayed where it was on the ridge.


Interesting video. Bizarre soundtrack.
My Dad tells a story about seeing a ball lightning floating down the exact center of a valley in the California Bay Area. He said it was the size of a large beach ball , and that it came to a dead stop directly across from him, hovered for a few seconds and then went on its merry way.

Carl Brannen

Some of the scientific books on lightning have chapters on ball lightning. Apparently it’s as common as regular lightning but is visible over a much shorter distance; hence far more people have seen regular lightning than ball.

Steve C says
“At last, an explanation of ball lightning. Males around the world can now hope that doctors will soon find an effective treatment for this painful and debilitating condition.’
There was a man named Glass
He had balls that were made out of Brass
When he rubbed them together
They played “Stormy Weather”
And lightning shot out of his…
Well you know the rest. 🙂

Kelvin Vaughan

Our local police went to investigate some ball lightning. They arrested it, took it back to the police station where they charged it and then put it in a cell.

Gene Selkov

To re-iterate Lowke’s point, for those of us who are asking how an ionised mass can stay together. It probably doesn’t. It is not about any mass staying together, it is about a focus of ionisation moving along with the charge in the ground. Much of the paper discusses the propagation of charge following the lightning strike. Imagine yourself burning wood or paper by focussing sunlight on it with a looking glass. You can cause the flame to move by shifting the looking glass; as you do so, you don’t have explain what you see by suggesting any movement of the burning mass. That’s the closest analogy I can come up with; hope it sheds some light on Lowke’s proposition, which seems to be much closer to plausible than any theory I’ve heard of so far.