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


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October 19, 2012 9:08 am

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
October 19, 2012 9:09 am

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

October 19, 2012 9:15 am

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!

October 19, 2012 9:15 am

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
October 19, 2012 9:19 am

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

Wm T Sherman
October 19, 2012 9:32 am

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

October 19, 2012 9:32 am

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.

October 19, 2012 9:32 am

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.

October 19, 2012 9:39 am

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.

October 19, 2012 9:49 am

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.

October 19, 2012 9:50 am

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

Gene Selkov
October 19, 2012 9:51 am

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)

October 19, 2012 10:02 am

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.

October 19, 2012 10:07 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:10 am

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

October 19, 2012 10:13 am

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.

October 19, 2012 10:14 am

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

October 19, 2012 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.

Brian R
October 19, 2012 10:18 am

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.

October 19, 2012 10:22 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:25 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:27 am

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

October 19, 2012 10:30 am

“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.

October 19, 2012 10:32 am

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

cui bono
October 19, 2012 10:33 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:36 am

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!

October 19, 2012 10:37 am

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

October 19, 2012 10:41 am

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

David, UK
October 19, 2012 10:41 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:42 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:44 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:49 am

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!

October 19, 2012 10:54 am

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
October 19, 2012 10:57 am

The video has an interesting explanation about these balls:


cui bono
October 19, 2012 11:05 am

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. 🙂

October 19, 2012 11:06 am

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.)

October 19, 2012 11:11 am

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

October 19, 2012 11:16 am

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.

October 19, 2012 11:17 am

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.

October 19, 2012 11:18 am

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.

October 19, 2012 11:22 am

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

Mike H
October 19, 2012 11:29 am

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
October 19, 2012 11:36 am

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.

October 19, 2012 11:52 am

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
October 19, 2012 12:02 pm

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.

October 19, 2012 12:10 pm

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
October 19, 2012 12:17 pm

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.

October 19, 2012 12:41 pm

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
October 19, 2012 1:44 pm

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
October 19, 2012 2:01 pm

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.

Jim Clarke
October 19, 2012 2:23 pm

“I wonder how long it will be before Al Gore tries to blame ball lightning on “dirty weather”?”
On the contrary, Anthony…Based on a very unscientific summation of the responses to this article, AGW seems to have put an end to ball lightning. Almost all witnesses report seeing ball lightning ‘a long time ago’, with no reports in the last 15-20 years! Oh, the devastation of no ball lightning! We must send Al all our money so he can save us from the lack of ball lightning!
/sarc off/

Jerker Andersson
October 19, 2012 2:39 pm

Those lightning balls looks very similar to UFO movies that you see from time to time. Myabe many of those UFO’s that have been seen are simply just lightning balls?
I remember reading about those mysterious balls when I was a kid and how they have scared people, especially a hundred years ago or more when the knowledge of how the physics works was much less than today.
If they are real, which I think they probably are since there are so many reports of them all over the world, they are also the reason for many “UFO” observations.

October 19, 2012 2:41 pm

It’s hearsay I suppose, but I had an uncle who was struck by ball lightning on a farm. He did not know what had happened but his teenage son saw it. Lightning hit a tree and a glowing ball came floating down the hill, passing through my uncle’s body. He was knocked unconscious, and paralysed for a (short?) time. Being Australian farmers in that generation, they did not even call a doctor. He went back to work and lived to a decent age. X-rays some years after the incident showed some atrophy in internal organs on the side of his body where he was hit.

October 19, 2012 2:47 pm

Only time I can recall balls of fire, was when I used Dencorub in the wrong place.

October 19, 2012 2:51 pm

The best explanation I have heard is that this is the artifact of a lightning strike on the retina in the back of your eye. It is so bright that it is retained for several seconds and you see a ball (spot or dot) of light wherever you look – as your eyes gaze in a different direction then the ball moves…. pretty obvious really!
You get the same effect from looking too long too closely in the direction of the sun.
Occam’s Razor suggests that the above is the best and most plausible explanation, as it explains why ball lightening appears to travels through windows and walls.

October 19, 2012 2:53 pm

The frequency of the occurrence of ball lightning (and of other UFOs) seems to be inverse to the increasing ubiquity (and quality) of video cameras. A curious characteristic.

October 19, 2012 2:57 pm

Some of these images were clearly flares being dropped at intervals from military aircraft, probably in training exercises.

October 19, 2012 3:19 pm

One summer in the late 1980s or early 1990s I was outside at my parents place in Clarkston Heights, WA when a thunderstorm quickly blew in from the east (usually they always come from the southwest). As the storm front moved across the Snake River from the Lewiston, ID side, my dad and I observed two or three gysers shoot up 6 to 10 feet high from the surface of the river. (There was no visible lightening associated with these gysers.) As the front approached our house, we saw translucent, blue, basketball-sized ball lightening bouncing along the ground experiencing decreasing kinetic and potential energies in their bounces under the influence of gravity. A baseball sized ball came through the air and suddenly stopped at the top of a metal post on a chain-link fence no more than 20 feet in front of me. It quickly disappeared within a few seconds. Needless to say we both were very excited to have witnessed such a rare event. I’ve never witnessed anything like that before or since.

October 19, 2012 3:41 pm

Anthony Watts stated :
“1. The word Explanation is misspelled.”
Maybe not though, because in an article in the Huffington Post
written by Robert S. McElvaine, Posted: September 29, 2008 12:59 AM,
he explains that ……
“Whatever else the 2008 presidential campaign may produce, it has given us a new word: ExPalination. Someday it may take its place in our language alongside malapropism and Bushism. …. in the Katie Couric interview on CBS, Palin was repeatedly put in situations where she had no answer and said, in effect: Well, let me exPalin that to you, Katie.”
So then if the “Journal of Geophysical Research” have an “Expalination”, then maybe it is because they don’t have an answer for the question of what is Ball Lightning.
However …… In an article by Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 22, 2007 ……
“Ball Lightning Mystery Solved? Electrical Phenomenon Created in Lab”
Physicist Antonio Pavão and doctoral student Gerson Paiva of the Federal University of Pernambuco have created orbs of electricity about the size of golf balls that mimic natural ball lightning

Bair Polaire
October 19, 2012 3:50 pm

My father saw ball lightning when he was a kid. It exploded in the garden and left a hole in the ground. The next day he jumped into the hole. It was knee deep.
A friend of mine saw it in the late ’60s together together with her parents. It entered the kitchen through the closed window during a thunderstorm and was about the size of a grape fruit. It traveled slowly through the air as if it knew exactly where to go: the light bulb in the middle of the room – which exploded with an extremely loud bang.
I only saw them telling the story…

October 19, 2012 4:01 pm

My brother (whose knowledge of physics surpasses my own) informed me that the EM field equations (aka Maxwell’s Equations) support quasi-stable solutions (mathematically ‘solitons’) when the plasma charge density is sufficiently high that the non-linearity of the dielectric and polarizability properties of air come into play. The charge then leaks off slowly until the polarized boundary layer around the plasma sphere weakens enough to allow the sphere to expand adiabatically, dissipating with a literal ‘bang.’

October 19, 2012 4:03 pm

Totally off topic. mostly. please delete at your discretion mods.
but this is a true story from my days as a radar technician.
Everyone is familiar with a glass or a shiny surface flashing brightly in the distance ? sometimes it can be blinding. Well the same thing happens with a radar signal. If a tech needs to set up a strong signal for a dish to latch onto, he would use a ‘corner reflector’, and this would guarantee a strong signal for the dish to home in on.
We had aircraft fly in towing drones in figure of eight circuits. We had missile batteries firing live missiles at the drones.
We had safety officers with their fingers on the self destruct.
What we didnt realise we had, were ‘ corner reflectors’
Seems that for a certain length tow cable, for a certain length figure of eight, for a certain diameter of cable, for a certain angle off the horizon
the tow cable itself would act as a VERY bright radar signal. and a tracking radar will follow the bright target
and so I witnessed the following traffic
pilot -Plane on range.
pilot-Drone deployed
Missile battery – target aqcuired
Range safety officer – target is drone. ok to go.
Missile battery – tracking, tracking , tracking
Missile battery – in range. IFF neg. ready to fire
Range safety officer – wait
Range safety officer – wait
pilot -er.. wait ? wait why
Range safety officer – wait
Range safety officer – wait . we appear to be tracking the wire. not the drone
pilot -er.. er.. tell them. tell them now
Range safety officer – ok missile battery, locked on aircraft , abort this one please
pilot -er.. er.. whats happening
Missile battery – missile away
Range safety officer – ugghhnnn
Range safety officer – jjjj eee, ….self destruct. fail safe pilot. fail safe
Range safety officer -missile HAS self destructed
looongg delay
pilot – can someone tell those ****** i am pulling this drone, not pushing it

October 19, 2012 4:44 pm

Never saw it myself, but I was on duty one dark and stormy night in the control tower at an Air Force base in Malaysia in the 60s. During a particularly violent passage of a tropical thunderstorm right over the base, the duty controller in the tower cab itself made a particularly panic-stricken squawk over the intercom and, after what seemed to be no more than seconds, crashed through the ops room door having descended the 60-odd feet from the tower cab to the ground floor almost without touching the steps.
He stated that a lightning ball had “entered” via one of the tower cab windows (effectively a double-glazed, sloping glass wall), danced across the top of the control console right in front of him before “exiting” through an opposite window. He was not normally a hysterical type, but he verged on hysterical that night. We wondered whether the normally high level of static electricity in the relatively very dry air-conditioned control tower atmosphere might have played some part of it.

Reply to  Mique
October 19, 2012 5:06 pm

Go fast backward a hundred years or so….
and think about stories of tornados and tsunamies.
Obvious crazy stuff. No good documentation, very few reliable witnesses..
Think what a difference our technology (and the internet — just look at the very believable multiple stories on this one thread!) has made!
It’s hard to deny reality when it bites y’in th’ arse!

October 19, 2012 4:46 pm

I wonder how many sitings of ‘ball lightning’ can be attributed to other causes, such as remnant burning embers (e.g. wood) from a struck object (e.g. as when welding or as ‘sparklers’ shed), retinal burn or “latent image retention” in the eyeball (from a bright light source as from a nearby lightning strike discharge), sightings of far-off power transformers or lines (or the surge suppressors) ‘lighting up’ (igniting or arcing after being struck) just to name a few causes that might be interpreted as a ball lightning occurrence.
Then we are left with those cases which are a little harder to explain, where two or more people witness the same event and relate the same details e.g. pilot and co-pilot accounts during encounters in aircraft …
The only tale I can recount is witnessing storm-induced ‘discharge’ from antenna leads as a kid (St. Elmo’s Fire); the 300 ohm twin-lead from my off-center fed Windom dipole arcing to water pipes and any other ‘grounded’ object while a thunderstorm was in the vicinity! (I was unaware of the means to properly assure a static electricity ‘discharge path’ through a high-valued resistor to ground from the antenna leads at that point in my life!)

October 19, 2012 5:25 pm

Ball lightning … caught on tape?

Here’s one I would attribute to a distant strike on an object (perhaps a strike that ignites a power pole ‘pig’ transformer full of oil):

Unusual horizontal “Jacob’s Ladder” – power line acing laterally along a power line (note the 60 Hz sound on the sound track: characteristic of power line arcing) – seen form further away this might be mistaken for a ‘phenomenon of nature’:

Perhaps there are more Ball Lightning events that are not observed as being such, as caught here by an observant film maker/videographer in the clouds (before descending?):

High-speed photography of a lightning event showing plasma spheroids (ball lightning?)


October 19, 2012 6:17 pm

G. Karst says:
October 19, 2012 at 9:19 am

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

Well, In-Q-Tel (founded by Gilman Louie) did invest money in a company that was working on discharging a capacitor bank through an ion channel made by a laser. Effectively a directed energy pulse. Last I heard, they were figuring out how to zap IEDs with it.

Ben D.
October 19, 2012 6:41 pm

There is this theory that all spherical so called particles of the cosmos are in fact some form of spherical standing wave of energy. The theory is based on the inherent pressure of the energy frequency continuum of the quantum vacuum, ie. Zero Point Energy. However the principle explained for the Electron in the following link would apply to all fluidic energy with the ultimate size of the sphere being being determined by the cutoff wavelength of the frequencies involved.
So my guess is that Ball Lightning is an example of a Spherical Standing Wave of Plasma.

Eugene WR Gallun
October 19, 2012 6:55 pm

If AFTER a nearby lightening strike certainly some reports are just retinal after-images. Move your eyes and the “spots” would apprear to move across the landscape. Then they shortly disappear.
People with “floaters” in their retinal fluid, when the floaters are off-center, find themselves trying to center their eyes on the floater — which continually seems to move as they turn their eyes and even their heads to “follow it”.
Of course, I am only talking about those reports of ball lightening AFTER a nearby lightening strike. One possibility for some of such.
Eugene WR Gallun

Bernie McCune
October 19, 2012 7:16 pm

There does not seem to be one simple explanation for ball lightning. Of the examples discussed and shown here, there seem to be a variety of types. Some forms are very bright and directly connected to lightning strikes. Finding stable conditions, boundary layers, and the necessary high voltages in the atmosphere, whatever the real explanation is, either outdoors or indoors probably helps to differentiate the types and activity of these strange phenomenon. From entrained plasma clouds to bight active balls that go bang there is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing real activity.
My experience was of a very short lived “gaseous” ball that formed near a old fashioned power drop into an old building. The dual 100 volt insulated line came through the wall from the outside into some glass insulators that were about 2 inches apart. This was in rural Japan in the summer with high humidity, threatening rain and there was lightning in the neighborhood. I do not remember any unusual sounds. The whole thing was completely visual.
A small ball (softball size) of very filmy gaseous like “fire” basically rolled from the ceiling down the hall toward me and dissipated before it got to me. My impression of the color was a ghost like white that was bright enough to easily be seen in the overcast afternoon light inside the hallway. There were windows at this end of the hall so my surroundings were well lit. This ball was not as bright as the numerous outdoor images shown in this post. It was more a glow. It did seem to roll and fluctuate as it moved toward me perhaps 2 or 3 feet in 2 or 3 seconds. I had an impression of a trailing visible small “gaseous” tail. No sound of heated air, in fact it was oddly quiet during the whole thing. It was there and then gone. There was no sense of danger probably because it happened so quickly. It came to within just a few feet of me. I had never experienced anything like it before nor since. But there is no doubt that I saw something very close to what I have described above. It was unsettling and I did quickly question what I might be seeing. But I have no doubt that it really happened.
Sorry I cannot explain it very well since my knowledge of plasma physics is limited to watching flame fronts in fire and candles. Very impressive to me and similar but a bit different from what I am confident was an experience that I had with ball lightning.

Eustace Cranch
October 19, 2012 7:32 pm

In my post at 12:02 I specifically said it could not have been a retinal afterimage; the ball did not follow my gaze when I looked away at a friend (who also saw it). And it did not change color like a retinal afterimage does. It stayed orange.

Dave Worley
October 19, 2012 7:34 pm

Atom tells the bartender “I’m missing an electron”.
Bartender says “are you sure?”
Atom says “I’m positive”.

October 19, 2012 8:48 pm

Okay, in the tradition of Occam’s Razor (‘the simplest, most direct explanation or rationale is most often the correct one’) I’ve come to the conclusion that the ball lightning phenom is a remnant ‘product’ of a stepped downward ‘leader’ that failed to ‘terminate’ in a discharge path either to earth or another charge center/area within the thunderstorm. As can be seen in the 5th (or last) video I posted above, one such instance of a leader not reaching ground can be observed with an associated ‘afterglow’.
With temperatures in the lightning channel reaching that of the sun, perhaps a bit of hot-fusion is taking place briefly (while the ‘ball’ remains ‘hot’ anyway) and this may account for a few things, including what might be described as the capability to release phenomenal amounts of energy and accomplish such things as blowing holes in the ground or making a ‘path’ (which might only be a fraction of a mil diameter) for itself through glass and other obstacles (like panels, partitions) that might be in its path …

anna v
October 19, 2012 9:05 pm

When I learned about soliton solutions to differential equations my curiosity about ball lightning diminished.
Solitons are non periodic solutions of the potentials and fields that fulfill the differential equations, thus allowing conditions for self sustained large wave packets.
The soliton hypothesis has been proposed for this phenomenon.
According to this theory, outdoor ball lightning is caused by an atmospheric maser– analogous to a laser, but operating at a much lower energy–having a volume of the order of many cubic kilometers.
“In technical terms, 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’ (the maser effect). Unless the volume of air is very large or else is enclosed in a conducting cavity (as is the case of ball lightning in airplanes or submarines and to a certain degree also indoors), 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.

October 19, 2012 9:24 pm

During the summer of 2011, in the mountains of northern New Mexico, my husband observed ball lightning in the house. We had been having lightning storms several times a week during that summer. It was daytime, and it was raining. A lightning strike appeared to hit either the roof, or just outside in the yard. A ball of lightning appeared in the living room, just a few feet away from his chair. It existed for just a few seconds, and then exploded with small electrical lightnings going in all directions for several feet. He said it sounded like a shotgun going off. Scared the snot out of him, and he isn’t easily scared.

October 19, 2012 9:43 pm

I am grateful for all the accounts of ball lightning here as they have given me an explanation for something I saw in the early night sky over Fredericton, N.B. during the summer in the late 1980s. My husband was driving us, heading towards the St. John River valley from the north side, when I saw a ball of light moving slowly to the east over the south side, and it appeared on two or three occasions that smaller balls of light were ‘dropped’ from this ball. It probably lasted half a minute before disappearing. My husband was too busy driving to see it. I decided the only explanation must have been something to do with nearby Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, but the object did not seem big enough to be any vehicle.
It took reading quite a few of other accounts here, with a definite envious emotion, before it clicked that indeed, ‘people just don’t realize what it is when they see it’, and I count as one of those people.

October 19, 2012 11:43 pm

Just go to a transmitter site during a thunder storm, we have a place here you have to sit on the wooden table if you are caught in the storm. From my experience it has never been the result of a strike but rather a charge in the air while the clouds are passing closely.

October 20, 2012 12:02 am

Ir. Geert C. Dijkhuis, my former physics teacher, was interested in the phenomena and its application in a cold-fusion energy reactor. Convectron N.V. was the company he founded (1983) based on that: .

October 20, 2012 1:02 am

I saw ball lightning while doing creel survey in a metal kicker on the Deshka river in 1993. It was preceded by regular lightning. It rolled around on the botton of a cloud like it was grid. Not quite a bolt. It had a tether to the cloud. Prob 20 seconds total. Maybe 30 ft across. About 800 ft up. Needless to say we got out of there.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
October 20, 2012 1:05 am

The Real Reason:
In the far-flung future, it will be concluded that time travel is impossible, affirming the hypothesis that it must be impossible as the transmitting of information to the past will alter the future arising from the point of reception thus effectively destroying the future the information was sent from.
After decades of experiments, all that the historical records have shown as happening at the intended entry points with favorable electrical conditions was glowing orbs of varying intensity, transmitting no information but dissipating the remaining energy pulse.
Despite recommendations to cease immediately, government funding will continue for decades, as the consensus among chronal researchers is that to avoid Catastrophic Anthropogenic Chronal Change they must continue until the experiments have generated as many orb effects in the past as there should be to match the past that became the present future.
Skeptics point to the scarcity of observations and argue they cannot be used to determine a global mean for any particular time. Chronal researchers point to the literature they themselves have peer-reviewed that shows an observation at a single geographical location is representative of expected observations up to 1200 km away.
Skeptics argue that the researchers are creating effects where there were none before, altering the historical records. Researchers point to their computational models, which reveal more experiments will create more effects, thus even more experiments are required to account for the rising rate of effects.
Finally skeptics note the models have predicted far more effects which should have been observed than actually were. In an accidentally released message, noted chronal scientist K Trenberth 6 reveals they can’t account for the difference and it’s a travesty they can’t. In response to criticism and in defense of his research, Trenberth declares the models must be correct, the effects must have manifested somewhere, and Trenberth commences searching the deep ocean for evidence of his missing orbs.

Reply to  kadaka (KD Knoebel)
October 20, 2012 3:05 am

Kadaka, beautiful analysis! I think you may have gotten one minor point wrong though: I believe it’s not Catastrophic Anthropogenic Chronal Change, but Catastrophic Anthropogenic Chronal Anomalies.
I.E., CaCa — nasty stuff!

October 20, 2012 1:25 am

Well, my BS meter is flickering. Must be the ball lightning.
I don’t trust the video. Really bad PR. For starters, ball lightning generally appears during high-lightning-strike storms, yet there was no sign of such. And more suspicious signs. To me, that video is so bad, and the press release so bad, that I wonder if CSIRO have other motives than the obvious. The reports on the thread of people’s experiences are so much more real, and fit so much better to both commonsense and what I also remember reading about ball lightning in the past. Yes, I would expect Tesla to be on the case.
During the recend Lewandowsky fracas, I re-read Richard Hoagland’s story of the origin of the “Hoaxed Moon Landing” superstition – which he was lucky enough to have witnessed first hand, years before it had matured in the “collective unconscious” and gained traction. Hoagland describes, in “Dark Mission” how he saw the story being seeded – with the inexplicable (at the time) cooperation of the publicity manager at JPL. Later on he worked out plausible reasons.
I smell the possibility of another such an event here – as if someone wants ball lightning theories / research / whatever discredited. Too close to UFO’s perhaps.
Or perhaps, maybe I’m wrong.

John Marshall
October 20, 2012 3:25 am

I would not recommend wearing flipflops (probably called something else in the US) when welding.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
October 20, 2012 5:37 am

John Marshall said October 20, 2012 at 3:25 am:

I would not recommend wearing flipflops (probably called something else in the US) when welding.

“Sandals” tends to refer to a better class of footwear, the cheap $1 things are still called flip-flops.
Some tried calling them something else, but “Kerrys” never caught on…

Mat Thompson
October 20, 2012 8:58 am

when I was a kid they were called “Thongs”. No more, alas.
No ball lightning in the Pacific NW, electrical storms are rare here, but I loved the fortean stories about it when I was a kid.

October 20, 2012 10:33 am

I think they are multidemionshional leaks caused by lightning. Seriously it suprises me it has taken so long to explain ball lightning. The explinations are about the same as 50 years ago

October 20, 2012 3:18 pm

Lucy Skywalker says October 20, 2012 at 1:25 am

Yes, I would expect Tesla to be on the case.

Please, a LOT of people preceded Tesla and MANY more have followed; The GREATEST asset he had was having a presence on two continents with access to technical events/progress on both and importantly in eastern and western Europe. In many, many ways he worked the ‘arbitrage’ angle on developing technologies (much like Steve Jobs did when he borrowed ‘concepts’ from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center when he first saw a GUI and ‘mouse’ demo’d) in his day. It took a smart cookie for him to recognize what he was seeing when he saw it, so, no slight on his abilities in that department.
I’m going to be honest with you now, because some of this ‘hero worship’ irks me to no end; Tesla was a man, a mortal, just like us, and put his pants on one leg at a time too, contrary to what one reads nowadays about the man on some websites. I would strongly urge you, plead with you, implore you to find out the honest truth about that technological time period in which he lived and get an honest mental picture of his contributions as well as what others were up to during that time period instead of continually foraging on the grist churned out by some writers and some websites (the ‘energetic forum’/free energy folks, bless their hearts, come to mind for one).

Ed Zuiderwijk
October 21, 2012 1:58 am

Only very few shots of what could be ball lightning in here. The clips with the clear skies and dancing lights are just airplanes coming in to land at a distant airfield. Here in Cambridge you can see such lights in the evening on a clear day from planes coming in to land and circling in parking orbits for Stansted and Luton airports (both about 50km away) and sometimes from the airbase at Mildenhall. The motion of such lights is exactly as seen in the clips.

Kevin Kilty
October 21, 2012 7:28 am

My wife’s folks have a house on Boot Lake, near Eagle River, Wisconsin. The geology is glacial till atop crystalline bedrock, and its probably difficult to get an adequate ground on utilities in the area. My wife say they get ball lightning often during thunderstorms. It follows the old copper telephone wires in the area, Even if there is no obvious ball lightning during a thunderstorm, lightning will make the telephone ring. My wife says her mother, during lightning storms when the phone would ring, would instruct the kids “Don’t answer that!”

October 22, 2012 9:13 am

While in the Marines in the early 80’s I was stationed at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA… a base in the Mojave with not much to recommend it at the time, but being set on the side of a substantial ‘mountain’ it had a sweeping view across many dozens of miles of sparsely- inhabited desert. Thunderstorms were not exactly common but during the three years I was there we saw a fair number of desert downpours with substantial lightning. I was there at the time as a at the Marine Corps Comm-Elect School; later I’d return there as an instructor.
Once during morning formation on the A Company parade deck, while a high storm was working its way along the opposing side of the valley, our entire unit formation was treated to what appeared to be a ball lightning strike on the valley floor, several miles away.
A large branched-lighting strike hit the ground, and immediately after, a brightly-glowing point of blue-white light, clearly visible in the overcast daylight, could be seen slowly moving along the valley floor for nearly a minute in more or less a random way. it could not be an afterimage as it stayed in place even when looking away, and several dozen people saw it clearly. It vanished abruptly, and several seconds later we heard a distant ‘bang!’
Watching that phenomenon was amazing; something I’ll never forget. If it hadn’t been seen by a large number of people, who just happened to all be lined up looking in the same direction as the same time (one of the joys of Marine life, standing in formation!) I would have doubted if it was real. Being witnessed by a few dozen budding electronics technicians, you can bet it was the hot topic of the day.

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