Ball lightning: Scary weather phenomenon

The spectacular phenomenon commonly known as ball lightning comprises one of the more fierce and frightening physical manifestations produced by Nature, such that those unfortunate enough to have experienced its violence remain forever fearful of storms that include the rumble of thunder and the blinding flash of atmospheric electricity. The agreed-upon consensus: “You don’t want to mess with ball lightning!”

A few quotations from ball lightning episodes of the past helps in understanding the dread that these bolts from above, that come without warning, bestow on the unwary.

During church services in Somerset, England, in 1596, a bright sphere of ball lightning crashed through one of the windows: “… a dark unproportioned thing about the bigness of a football … suddenly it seemed to break with no less sound than if a hundred cannons had been discharged … lightning and thunder as if the church had been full of fire …”

Aboard the sloop “Catherine and Mary” in the Gulf of Mexico in 1726: “a large ball of fire fell from the Element and split our mast in Ten Thousand Pieces … split our Main Beam … killed one man … had it not been for the violent rains, our Sails would have been of a Blast of Fire …”

Though a fearful phenomenon, ball lightning occurs with such infrequency, a glowing sphere remaining intact for only a few seconds, that almost no scientific studies have been conducted on these horrific materializations. Thus, for the most part, only the more or less reliable evidence about them has come from on site witnesses to ball lightning events. These personal encounters, giving rise to understandably excitable reporting, have created a certain mythology about ball lightning. Witnesses have conferred upon the erratically moving balls of fire and destruction a devilish degree of intelligence and willfulness as they careen across rooms, speed through backyards or flash through the confined spaces of ships and submarines.

As recently as 2012, however, Chinese scientists, using a spectrometer during a thunder and lightning storm, managed to capture the form of a large ball lightning on a connected digital camera. The resulting video showed a spherical bright light nearly 16 feet in diameter. The ball of fire remained in view for about one and one half seconds and floated across the field of view for a distance of some fifty feet. Spectrometric analysis of the event later revealed the ball lighting had contained minute amounts of calcium, iron and silicon — elements that not surprisingly comprised a portion of the earth over which the ball of fire had traveled.

Theoretically, then, if not actually, the generation of ball lightning depends on two situations: 1) a storm wherein bolts of lightning can and do strike a bare stretch of ground; 2) elements contained in the soil that a lightning bolt can release into the air, the elements quickly coalescing into an energized ball of charged particles. This sphere of charged particles produces the eerie ball lightning illumination described by witnesses and the damaging explosion that occurs when they suddenly disintegrate.