Ball Lightning


The stovepipe sharply rattled. Laura looked up and screamed, “Ma! The house is on fire!”

A ball of fire was rolling down the stovepipe. It was bigger than Ma’s big ball of yarn. It rolled across the stove and dropped to the floor as Ma sprang up. She snatched up her skirts and stamped on it. But it seemed to jump through her foot, and it rolled to the knitting she had dropped.

Ma tried to brush it into the ashpan. It ran in front of her knitting needles, but it followed the needles back. Another ball of fire had rolled down the stovepipe, and another. They rolled across the floor after the knitting needles and did not burn the floor.

“My goodness!” Ma said.

While they watched those balls of fire rolling, suddenly there were only two. Then there were none. No one had seen where they went.

“That is the strangest thing I ever saw,” said Ma. She was afraid. 

— Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek 

A spectrum exists, filled with bizarre, atmospheric phenomena. Nearly all of them are rare. Most of them seem as if they would be fictitious, coming down to us through the shadows of folklore. On one end of the spectrum are happenings that seem fantastical but are scientifically documented, such as St. Elmo’s fire. On the other are completely unexplainable aerial objects, which may or may not be alien technology, swamp gas, or the planet Venus.

Somewhere in the middle lies ball lightning.

Like St. Elmo’s fire, ball lightning fills the historical record, from 12th-century England to a famous 1638 thunderstorm that ravaged a church to Tsar Nicholas II to Nikola Tesla to World War II to 21st-century air flight. Though the individual details vary, the general gist of the phenomenon is a round object composed of less intense lightning or fire, ranging in size from a few centimeters to several meters. These balls often occur near thunderstorms and sometimes leave foul odors when they disappear. Sometimes, they can travel through objects such as windows or, as in the tale by Laura Ingalls Wilder, human bodies.

These balls might seem to be utter fantasy, yet modern scientists take the happening seriously, proposing dozens of explanations. Though extraordinarily rare, meteorologists even believe to have captured this phenomenon, however briefly, on video.

A 1901 depiction of ball lightning - unknown artist

Though sometimes equated to a form of St. Elmo’s fire, ball lightning seems to be a distinct happening. Whereas St. Elmo’s fire occurs near rod-like objects, ball lightning is free-flowing, sometimes reported to move vertically, horizontally, or both, careening on unpredictable pathways. Sometimes ball lightning explodes or engulfs matter it contacts; other times it dissipates into the ether. Some accounts give vivid hues to the orbs, others describe them as transparent or translucent. One portrayal might seem closer to rolling fire, while another might depict bottled lightning.

A 1972 paper collected sightings across the ages in an attempt to typify the phenomenon’s characteristics, though they warned humans are rather unreliable witnesses. In congregation, they deemed the “typical” ball of lightning to:

  • appear near thunderstorms
  • measure between 4 and 8 inches in diameter
  • have the brightness of an indoor lamp
  • range in color, though yellow is most common
  • last from one second to one minute
  • move a few meters per second, though they can hover and change trajectories
  • rotate
  • lack heat, though some emit hotness at dissipation
  • be attracted to metal objects
  • possibly pass through doors and windows
  • leave odors of ozone, sulfur, or nitrogen oxide
"Globe of Fire Descending into a Room" in "The Aerial World," by Dr. G. Hartwig, London, 1886

To the rational, discerning, modern human, this description might sound more apt for Ghostbusters than Planet Earth.

Yet, in 2014, scientists in China caught ball lightning on camera. They were on the Tibetan Plateau to study cloud-to-ground lightning and, by chance, happened to glimpse ball lightning. 

This fortunate event features good and bad news. High-speed cameras captured a normal lightning bolt hitting the ground, an orb of lightning arising, and moving horizontally across the field of vision. They estimate the ball to have a diameter of five meters (16 feet). The bad news is the video lasts just 1.64 seconds, so it’s not a feature-length smoking gun. The good news is that period was long enough for the scientists to capture its emission spectrum (more on this snippet later)!

1.3 seconds of real-time video slowed down to show the ball lightning’s evolution in shape, color, and brightness and its associated spectrum – J. Cen, P. Yuan, and S. Xue, Phys. Rev. Lett. (2014)

The emission spectrum (intensity vs. wavelength) of a natural ball lightning - graphic by J. Cen, P. Yuan, and S. Xue, Phys. Rev. Lett. (2014)

Of course, other videos exist that purport to display ball lightning. Some or many of them might be the real deal. In my, albeit limited, research, the Chinese footage is the only widely accepted documentation of ball lightning.

A few of the videos floating around certainly seem to display spheres of lightning, though.

If many scientists concede the Chinese video did indeed capture ball lightning, what is causing it?

The short answer is we have no idea.

A panoply of theories could fill hundreds of theses.

Nikola Tesla, who supposedly produced St. Elmo’s fire on the wings of butterflies, also purportedly created ball lightning at his laboratory in Colorado. He viewed them as mere curiosities, byproducts of his attempt to concoct massive amounts of electricity, in order to send signals across the globe. Tesla believed ball lightning to be superheated, rare gases that resisted radiation thanks to the formation of vacuums in the air.

Other ideas are filled with wonderful technospeak, such as buoyant plasma, Rydberg matter, and hydrodynamic vortex ring antisymmetry. Many of the notions hinge on electromagnetic fields and ionization.

One theory rests on electromagnetic fields, but posits ball lightning doesn’t really exist. Some scientists believe the orbs are hallucinations, caused by epileptic seizures in the frontal lobe. Studies have shown that brains exposed to electromagnetic fields tend to see – you guessed it – balls of light. Other studies just happen to display that lightning can produce fields strong enough to excite neurons in the brain.

If the preceding theory is correct, what exactly are we seeing in the videos?

Other ideas, of course, involve aliens. The foo fighter sensation of World War II, in which pilots witnessed unexplained aerial phenomena, such as glowing balls moving in odd manners, has been linked to ball lightning, perhaps of extraterrestrial or extradimensional origin.

A few ideas have gained more traction than others.

For example, the microwave cavity hypothesis could explain one attribute rather well. In this idea, ball lightning is a glow discharge manipulated by microwave radiation that is guided by ionized air in thunderstorms. Another version of the notion wonders if the ball is made of microwaves trapped inside a plasma bubble. In this situation, the balls could either slowly deteriorate as waves leave the plasma or they could violently explode. Further, microwaves can move through glass, which would go a long way to clarifying how the balls might progress through matter. The microwave theory would check a lot of boxes.

Though most scientists believe ball lightning to be distinct from St. Elmo’s fire, the soliton hypothesis touts the opposite: ball lightning could be detached St. Elmo’s fire. A soliton is a self-reinforcing wave packet. If nitric oxide particles produce a glow – and St. Elmo’s fire is blue or violet because of oxygen and nitrogen – they can remain stable at low temperatures. If the ball could somehow maintain ionization, it might begin to float away from the objects that created the fire.

Perhaps the most intriguing theory, however, connects to the only hard evidence we have regarding ball lighting.

Oddly, ball lightning might be born from the soil!

Though short-lived, the Chinese footage of ball lightning managed to capture the constituent parts of its color spectrum. The test displayed the ball lightning contained a lot of silicon. What is struck by lightning and has a lot of silicon? The dirt beneath our feet. The dirt clod hypothesis states that when a bolt strikes the soil it vaporizes silica, which burns through oxidation. If the strike separates oxygen from silicon dioxide in the process, it would release pure silicon vapor. This silicon could condense into an aerosol orb thanks to its charge, which would then glow as it recombined with oxygen in the air.

In 2007, this idea gained merit when scientists evaporated pure silicon with electric arcs. The result? “Luminous balls with lifetime in the order of seconds.”

Ball lightning produced by silicon?

The dirt clod hypothesis only gained more momentum when the Chinese team captured the visible spectrum of their ball lightning incident.

Has the mystery finally been solved?

Some scientists still do not believe ball lightning even exists. Without further evidence, the dirt clod is just one possible answer to a perplexing phenomenon.

Here at The Mountains Are Calling, we count ball lightning as yet another real, natural happening that we learned thanks to Magic: the Gathering.

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