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What Is Ball Lightning?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

This article gives an overview of ball lightning, an enigmatic phenomenon that scientists are still working to understand. Learn about most of the major theories surrounding this unusual electrical event.

This article gives an overview of ball lightning, an enigmatic phenomenon that scientists are still working to understand. Learn about most of the major theories surrounding this unusual electrical event.

It’s pretty rare for something to be readily accepted as a potential scientific finding with very little evidence, and yet for years, ball lightning fit this descriptor perfectly. It is something very enigmatic, but that has been seen by so many people over the years that it has to be something real.

In this article, we will talk about some of the theories surrounding what ball lightning could be, and while there is no general consensus yet, it is nonetheless satisfying to see the topic being taken seriously by some of the premier minds of the academic world.

Struggles

Essentially, lightning is a discharge of electricity between clouds and the ground. Up in the air, dust and ice in the clouds undergo charge separation, with positive charges going up and negative chargers going down. On the Earth’s surface, positive charges rise up and electromagnetic fields grow until a sudden release of electrons from the clouds to the Earth.

But why this charge separation happens, how the bolt itself forms, and similar questions remain unknown and that hasn’t helped in the investigation of ball lightning. There is a long list of historical sightings of ball lightning and yet no reliable photographs or video have surfaced yet (or, that is anything that most of the scientific community finds acceptable) (Canan 46-7).

Data Approximations

We can gather some information about ball lightning from eyewitness accounts that might help us. Of course, we are putting faith in honest feedback here but as you will see, some trends here indicate more than a random collection of tales. Over a 4,587 sighting report, 23% were orange, 21% white, 20% yellow, 18% red/pink, 11% blue/violet, 1% green, and 6% other colors. OF those, the average (63% of all ball lighting cases) size of ball lighting varies from 0.1 meters to 0.5 meters, with less than 2% being smaller than 0.2 meters and less than 2% being greater than a mater in diameter (Trimarchi; Meessen 166, 168).

In 1992, Dijkhuis found that the distribution of ball lightning sizes follows a log-normal distribution (which just means taking the log to get the normal distribution) and from that found an average size of .19 meters, an average life of 8 seconds, an average luminosity of 70 Watts, and an average speed of 1 m/s (Ibid).

Initial Studies

One of the first major studies into ball lightning was conducted in 1955 by Kapitas, who noted how reports of ball lightning seemed similar to the initial blast of a nuclear explosion. Not that he was implying a similar origin or anything like that they may be similar in that ionized air is a major component of the blast. But nuclear explosions are huge and give off all the energy contained in the initial blast within 10 seconds, contributing to their destructive power (Meessen 163-4).

With an initial diameter of 150 meters, that gives an energy dissipation of 4*pi*(75 meters) ^2 / 10 seconds or about 71,000 m^2/s. Now, ball lightning is much smaller, usually 1 meter in diameter. Using proportions, we can take the energy dissipation from before to find that a ball lighting even should only last about 0.000005 seconds. But most reported ball lightning events last for a few seconds, leading Kapitas to theorize something is feeding it energy, perhaps from the host thunderstorm (Ibid).

Many reports of ball lightning report it turning on just like a lightbulb, almost as if it was already there and the storm just activated it. Once spotted, the ball lightning “usually preserves the same size, color, and luminosity during the whole lifetime” which is notable considering the constant changes in the environment around it. This is also seen as a clue that something must be feeding it energy until…something happens. Ball lightning has even need noted to pass through barriers and still preserve itself, perhaps in a search for charged particles (164-5).

One notable area of discrepancy is how ball lightning ends. Right now, the stats show a roughly 5-50 mix of either a silent disappearance like a lightbulb or a loud explosion. It is possible the first death is a starvation, a loss of the energy needed to sustain it. The second could be an overindulgence, too much energy present for the ball lightning to contain itself. And based on some reports of ball lightning we can gather an energy density spread (165-6).

In 1936 a man named Morris saw a red ball lightning the size of an orange enter a water barrel which contained 18 liters of water, which proceeded to boil. That would yield an energy density at about 6000 J/cm^3. In 1972, 30 people in a Hungarian factory saw a football sized ball lightning enter a water pit and boil about 120 liters away. This would be an energy density of 30000 J/cm^3 (Ibid).

Theories

Martin Uman University of Florida) has almost 50 years of lightning research done. He feels that ball lightning is likely a chemical phenomenon started by a standard lightning strike, knocking up dust and debris and with the right mixture of gases ignites into a ball. But he cannot account for how these objects seem to remain stationary at times (Canan 48).

Karl Stephan (Texas State University) has been spending two decades trying to replicate ball lightning in the lab and has found the most promise in Gatchina plasmoids, which are pockets of hot, ionized gas with brief lifespans that happen to arise from salty water being pumped full of high-voltage electricity. But his plasmoids don’t live as long as ball lightning (Ibid).

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Robert Cameron (University of Strathclyde) theorizes that ball lightning may actually be electromagnetic knots, something that has never been created before but does have some theoretical potential. Herbert Boerner, an independent ball lightning researcher, built upon Robert’s work when thinking about how ball lightning events compare to the storms near them. Oftentimes, miles separate them, so Boerner definitely thinks an EM component is at play here (49).

Using Robert’s work, Boerner theorizes that EM fields grab local electrons which exist in the knot and then an EM field from lighting strike activates it. But the math says the EM fields would have to be microwaves for this to work, and lightning strikes don’t make those (Ibid).

Andrea Aiello, who saw a ball lighting event as a child and now works at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, has an even more radical idea: Extra dimensions. This idea arose because of the stationary nature of ball lighting…or so it seems. What if it’s actually moving in other dimensions? Also, consider that a lightning strike, a 3D object, as a 2D cross section. What if a 4D lightning strike had a 3D cross section that we see as ball lightning (46, 49)?

Auguste Meessen came up with a plasma model to explain ball lightning. He noted that storms should produce electromagnetic fields that accelerate free electrons hanging around. This movement would lead to ionizations in the air and the production of even more charged particles. Once lightning strikes, the magnetic field from it runs horizontal to the ground and so exerts a force on the local cloud of charged particles. The heavier ions inside our cloud don’t move as much as the exterior charges, allowing a charge differential of the surface to occur and thus our plasma to be created (Meessen 168-9).

Meessen's idea.

Meessen's idea.

Best Candidate?

John Abrahamson’s (University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand) theory goes back to basics and invokes silicon vapor. When lightning hits the ground, several materials present at the strike including silicon, oxygen, and carbon are all combined into a vapor, with the carbon stealing oxygen and so leaving silicon as the predominant element in the vapor. Then, via electromagnetic charges that remain in the air, the dust forms into a ball. The silicon and oxygen in the air interact, creating a reaction and hence the glow that we see. Once the reaction has expired, so does the glow (Trimarchi, Slezak).

Abrahamson’s work implies that other metals could create this reaction and that other events with electromagnetic emanations could also create a similar effect. One test of the theory was conducted by Antonio Pavao and Gerson Paiva (Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil) when silicon substrate was vaporizes with 140 amps of electricity. Surprisingly, fireballs a few centimeters in diameter were created (Ibid).

Another team may have inadvertently confirmed the theory when Eli Jerby and Vladimir Dikhytar (Tel Aviv University in Israel) made ball lighting accidentally using a 600 watt microwave drill (essentially a microwave magnetron attached to a rod for directing the drill). When the drill was removed from the hotspot of their material (rock, glass, etc.), a fireball that looked like ball lightning was confirmed to be seen (Ibid).

In 2012, a major piece of evidence for Abrahamson’s model was found by Jianyong Cen and team (Northwestern Normal University in Lanzhou, China). They were studying a lightning storm and happened to get a purported ball lighting event on camera. The ball happened just after a lightning strike, was about 5 meters in diameter, moved a total of 15 meters, and then disappeared after 1.6 seconds (Slezak).

During all of this, spectrographic data was gathered and showed silicon, iron, and calcium were present in the ball lighting. These materials were also present in the ground, something that Abrahamson’s work predicts should be true (Ibid).

Works Cited

Canan, Eric. “Great Balls of Fire.” New Scientist. New Scientist LTD., 24 Oct. 2020. Print. 13 Jan. 2021.

Meessen, Auguste. “Ball Lightning: Bubbles of Electronic Plasma Oscillations.” Int. J. Unconv. Electromagn. Plasmas 4, 163–179.

Slezak, Michael. “Natural ball lightning probed for the first time.” Newscientist.com. New Scientist Ltd., 26 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2021.

Trimarchi, Maria. “Does ball lighting really exist?” science.howstuffworks.com. InfoSpace Holdings, LLC. Web. 22 Feb. 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Leonard Kelley

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