Ball Lightning doesn't look like "lightning." It usually appears as a mysterious glowing sphere which drifts through the air. It can also appear to bounce along the ground.

Light balls are described as glowing balls of plasma.

The phenomena usually lasts for only 5 seconds, but sometimes remains longer.

Some of the balls are blindingly bright, others have almost no illumination and appeared grayish.

Light balls can vary in size and shape - the norm being the size of an orange or grapefruit. The diameter of the balls range from a few centimeters to a few meters, with the average around 20 cm. They are sometimes oval, cylindrical, flame, pear, ring, or blob shaped.

Cylindrical forms can sometimes be flattened, bent, or twisted into a variety forms. Sometimes they have halos, sparks, or radial streamers around them. Some appear to be fibrous. Some are solid in appearance, others are hollow.

Various colors of ball lightning have been seen. Sometimes the colors change.

The phenomena usually occurs during or right after a thunderstorm. In most surveys about 70% occured right after a lightning strike.

Ball lightning has been seen without any detected electrical storm.

Seasonal variations for the frequency of occurance are the same as for normal lightning, with the majority in the summer - a time of lightning storms.

In a shockingly high percentage of cases the balls actually entered in buildings - through windows and doors. Sometimes they cause no damage to property - yet other times they burn holes.

Balls have been reported as eminating from tornadoes, cyclones, and hurricanes. In these cases high electric fields are present.

Light balls have been seen on many occasions traveling along fences or power lines.

Sometimes they appear to roll, spin, hop, or vibrate.

Some people believe that ball lightning movement is guided by electric fields EM energies), which might explain their attraction to conductors.

There movement doesn't seem related to wind speed or velocity.

Ball lightning sometimes carries a significant charge, and sometimes no charge. Some witnesses have reported being seriously shocked and others not at all. People have sometimes gotten burns similar to those caused by ultraviolet radiation from touching ball lightning. Most reports show no evidence of radiant heat from the balls, even at close range.

Most researchers agree that ligtning balls are real, but no one knows what they are. Researchers are also unable to reproduce ball lightning.

The next time you view a lightning storm - look for these balls of light.

August 22, 2000 - The Christian Science Monitor

The ancient Greeks reported seeing strange glowing balls moving across the sky. They are not alone. Many people all over the world have seen such things. The luminous globes are called ball (or globe) lightning. Sometimes ball lightning is the size of a baseball, but it can be up to six feet across.

Dr. Szumowski says ball lightning is generally "red, or red and yellow, changing to white, and disappearing with a loud bang." It may also leave a bad smell behind. (The odor is believed to be caused by ozone.) It usually lasts for only 20 seconds or so, but it can linger for many minutes.

Ball lightning generally occurs during high-energy thunderstorms, but not always. Sometimes it appears seconds after a regular lightning strike, or just before. What's more, ball lightning travels in weird ways. Eyewitnesses describe it moving parallel to the ground. It may also descend vertically from clouds - or bounce! It can hiss, too.

While it's very startling, ball lightning does little damage. Sometimes it leaves scorch marks.

Scientists don't exactly know what ball lighting is or why it acts the way it does. It may be glowing plasma (electrically charged gas) trapped in a series of magnetic fields.

New lead for fireball riddle

Few pictures of ball lighting exist

February 2, 2000 - BBC

Two New Zealand scientists think they can explain one of the great mysteries of the natural world - ball lightning.

These bright, hovering spheres of light seen during thunderstorms have been reported as far back as the Middle Ages. They can be as small as tennis balls or as big as beach balls.

The filaments cluster to form fluff-like balls

They can be white, yellow, orange or blue and have been said to pass through windows and walls. Some people have even claimed to see ball lightning pass through aeroplanes.

But despite numerous theories and attempts to recreate the phenomenon in a laboratory, ball lightning has remained an enigma to modern science.

Now, John Abrahamson and James Dinniss, from the University of Canterbury, have put forward the theory that these ethereal objects are nothing more than burning particles of silicon.

Their experiments show that when ordinary forked lightning hits the ground, mineral grains in the soil can be converted into tiny particles of silicon and its compounds with oxygen and carbon.

Burning fluff balls

These particles, less than a tenth of a micrometre (millionth of a metre) in size, then link up into chains.

The filaments then cluster together into light, fluffy balls that are carried aloft by air currents. The silicon particles are very reactive and burn relatively slowly, emitting light as they do so.

"Lightning penetrates below the surface of the soil and heats a certain portion of it to quite high temperatures, so that it vaporises," Dr Abrahamson told the BBC.

"And then, when the lightning strike has finished, the vapour is free to erupt, to appear above the ground in the form of a ball.

"The jet of hot gas will be very much the same as the jet coming out of one's mouth when one blows a smoke ring - it forms a little re-circulating vortex and it's quite self-contained."

The scientists' model predicted that heating above a given starting temperature would lead to an explosive end for a fluffy ball, whereas with a lower starting temperature the ball would melt and fade away.

Because the ball would only become visible over the latter part of its lifetime, it would appear to materialise out of thin air after a lightning strike.

One theoretical umbrella

And Dr Abrahamson believes their theory will even explain how ball lightning passes through windows and walls.

"Most, especially old, houses have cracks around their windows and cracks near doors," he says.

"The network of silicon filaments should be very flexible and move wherever air moves. So if air can get through a crack as a draught, the ball should be able to squeeze through, and then rearrange itself on the other side."

Unfortunately, the researchers have not been able to generate ball lightning in the laboratory. But Dr Graham Hubler, of the United States Naval Research Laboratory, who has taken a keen interest in lightning balls, says the research has much promise.

"I have followed the theories that have come out over the years, and few can explain all of the features of ball lightning. This one, however, unifies an awful lot of the properties of ball lightning under one theoretical umbrella, so I think it stands a very good chance of perhaps being correct.

The filaments burn slowly

Scientists Still Baffled by Ancient Mystery of Ball Lightning

January 2000 - AP

At least since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have been startled from time to time by ethereal globes of light that appear from nowhere, float through the air for a second or two and then disappear abruptly, sometimes with a pop. Nearly all lightning experts agree that these objects, known as ball lightning, are real. But no one knows what they are.

Some believe they may be UFO's.

Usually harmless--but occasionally reported to be lethal--lightning balls have excited fascination and scientific discussion for centuries, but no conclusive evidence of their origin or nature has been found.

The latest theory seeking to explain ball lightning, published by two Spanish physicists in the current issue of the journal Nature, suggests that after an ordinary lightning strike, the lines of magnetic force created by a huge current of electricity sometimes link with each other. The result, they theorize, is sometimes an electromagnetic knot strong enough to confine a ball of glowing plasma -- a lightning ball.

Plasma is a kind of high-temperature gas, in which electrons have been stripped away to leave positively charged atoms or molecules. A common form of plasma is seen in the arc welding process, in which electrically charged gases heated by the arc emit intense white light.

The two physicists, Dr. Antonio F. Ranada and Dr. Jose L. Trueba of Universidad Complutense in Madrid, who describe ball lightning as "a rare and beautiful phenomenon, so far unexplained," built their theory by combining the Navier-Stokes equation describing the motions of fluids with the Maxwell equation for magnetic fields.

To account for the seeming ability of ball lightning to maintain an internal current of electricity for an appreciable period of time, they suggest that a ball starts its brief existence with a bolt of ordinary lightning that heats the gases in air above 53,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

At that temperature, the plasma in the ball would offer no electrical resistance, so the current could continue to flow for a while. But as the ball expanded it would rapidly cool, losing its infinite conductivity as well as its electromagnetic knot, and thereby destroying itself.

The scientists said it might be possible to test their idea using either a tokamak, a device that exploits interlocking magnetic fields to contain hydrogen plasma and force it to undergo fusion, or a high-power microwave source.

But Dr. Martin A. Uman, a lightning expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville, objected that this theory did not match observations of real ball lightning.

"There are two obvious flaws in the suggestion," Uman said in an interview. "For one, if ball lightning consists of plasma hotter than 30,000 kelvins (53,500 degrees Fahrenheit), you would expect it to emitdazzling white light, even more intense than an arc welder.

But people who have seen ball lightning usually say it is quite dim, about as bright as a 10-watt bulb seen from a distance of 10 feet.

For another, any gas as hot as the Spanish investigators suggest would quickly rise through the surrounding cool air, and yet lightning balls are reported to float horizontally, not to rise."

Despite his criticism of the Nature paper, however, Uman remains a firm believer in the phenomenon of ball lightning.

"There are references to the phenomenon as old as the literature of ancient Greece and as modern as a report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory," Uman said, "and the descriptions are rather consistent.

"Many people who have seen ball lightning, including a few scientists, have reported noticing a bad smell. Generally, you can't predict when a ball will appear, and when it does, it survives for only one second or less, which is why there are no credible photographs or videotapes of the phenomenon.

"Balls are created not only by electrical storms but have been seen coming out of electrical wall sockets, banks of storage batteries in submarines and places involving high currents."

Dr. Stanley Singer, a physicist in Pasadena, Calif., who organizes international scientific conferences on ball lightning, disagrees with Uman about the behavior of lightning balls.

"Many reports describe them as intensely bright, just as one would expect from a ball of hot plasma," he said in an interview.

But some accounts describe lightning balls as capable of floating through glass windows or even through walls, and this cannot be easily explained in terms of the behavior of ordinary plasma.

The existence of ball lightning has never been unequivocally established by film or videotape. A book published in 1980 by Plenum Press, Ball Lightning and Bead Lightning, by James Dale Barry, contained many photographs purporting to show lightning balls, but most experts doubt that any of them represent real lightning balls; explanations by skeptics include camera movement during the photographing of ordinary lightning, and the inadvertent inclusion of an automobile headlight in a night photograph.

Many scientists have been skeptical of reports of ball lightning. The great English physicist Michael Faraday concluded in 1839 that ball lightning is an optical illusion, an after-image perceived by eyes that have just seen the dazzling flash of an ordinary bolt.

The consistency and frequency of ball lightning reports have convinced many physicists of their existence, but others are troubled by the fact that some ball lightning reports come from people who also report UFO sightings.

"The literature on ball lightning is rather fringy," Uman said, "and you have to be careful to separate the credible ball lightning reports from the lightning and UFO lore."

Uman himself does not believe the phenomenon is caused by ordinary plasma, but might be caused by gases released from objects struck by lightning, including pieces of tree bark.

Another group of theories supposes that lightning balls consist of gases heated by microwave radiation. Dr. Pyotr Kapitsa, co-winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics, believed that ball lightning occurred in regions where radio waves produced by thunderstorms interacted with each other to produce energy intensities high enough to convert ordinary air into glowing plasma.

Article from a reader

Being an electrical engineer, I took an interest in Ball Lightning when I used to work in the aerospace defense industry. There is no real mystery to Ball Lightning. Rather, it is a quasi-stable spherical solution to Maxwell's Equations. The problem is how to trigger the physical manifestation known as Ball Lightning.

First, It takes a high voltage potential field, from either a real thunderstorm or an artificial high potential difference.

Second, It requires some metallic element to create a gas plasma of sufficient volume that the electromagnetic fields can confine (bottle) this plasma. It appears that copper (as in copper wiring) is often involved. The copper is ionized by a high voltage discharge.

For example, during an electrical storm, a person is about to talk on an old-time wall-mounted telephone. They turn the magneto crank to "ring" and then a ball of lightning jumps out of the phone and rolls around the floor. Ball Lightning floats and hisses, and is blown around by light air currents. This may give it the appearance of "intelligence."

As another example case, consider the following: During an outside storm, lightning hits an airplane. Ball Lightning is generated inside the plane. It runs down the aisle of the plane scaring the passengers, before dissipating its energy, and evaporating with a bang. Sometime a small crater is created. Ozone is often smelled. The size of the ball usually about 12 inches in diameter - not much bigger, not much smaller.

Consider this Family Case passed on by my Mother. The Era about 1917, in Rochester NY. During a thunderstorm, Ball Lightning enters the front door of their house. Buzzes around, goes up the stairs (air currents), goes through my Aunt's bedroom and out her window. She had been "sick" (influenza?) but was instantly healed. How's that for a story?

- John C. Rice MEE MENG PE

Marfa Lights are famous floating balls of light that have been seen in the mountains near Marfa for over 150 years. They are yellowish-green and appear above the horizon at dusk. The sometimes split into two or more separate lights.

The first recorded sighting of the lights was by rancher Robert Ellison in 1883. Variously described as campfires, phosphorescent minerals, swamp gas, static electricity, St. Elmo's Fire, and "ghost lights," the lights reportedly change colors, move around, and change in intensity. Scholars have reported over seventy-five local folk tales dealing with the unknown phenomenon.

Marfa, Texas was established in 1881. It is located in Presidio County, about 26 miles west of Alpine, Texas on U.S. Highway 67/90. The lights appear in an area SW of Chinati Mountain, on Mitchell Flat, near Twin Peaks, and over the flat prairie north of Cuesto Del Burro Mountains. A roadside plaque on US 90, 8 miles E of Marfa commemorates the lights. An abandoned USAF base is nearby.

Marfa, Texas is a small west Texas ranching community of about 2,000 folks, located near Big Bend National Park. Marfa is known primarily for two reasons. The classic movie "Giant", with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, an incredibly clean-cut Dennis Hopper and James Dean, was filmed in Marfa. Marfa is also home of the semi-famous Marfa Mystery Lights.

The Lights, which most people describe as spherical, appear south of Marfa each evening. They appear to bounce around, vanish, then re-appear elsewhere. According to the legend, these lights have been observed since the 1800s. The Lights have become an important tourist attraction in Marfa, a town that has seen much better days. On a nice evening, dozens of people will stop and view the Lights at the "official" viewing area, about 10 miles east of town on Highway 90.

Apache legends say the lights are the spirit of Chief Alsate - condemned to wander the area after he offended a tribal God. Early settlers thought they were the lanterns of a family that got lost in the 1850's.

Many theories have developed as to their true nature. They include:

  • Spooks
  • Uranium
  • UFO'S
  • Swamp Gas

    The three best viewing locations are:

  • Near US 90 plaque
  • On a large plateau just east of Marfa and west of Alpine
  • On Mitchell Flat Southwest of Marfa

    In 1989 the TV show 'Unsolved Mysteries' set up monitoring equipment at the sight and monitored the lights, and scientists on scene could only say they were NOT manmade. A MUFON researcher - Dennis Stacey - has reported the lights seem to display intelligent behavior by following cars or people.

    They still remain a mystery.

    - The Marfa Mystery Lights