Facts about Ball Lightning

Ball lightning is a phenomenon whose existence has been debated by scientists. According to some 10,000 written accounts, ball lightning appears as a glowing ball similar to a tennis ball. It tends to float near the ground and may bounce off the ground or other objects. The glow resembles a 100-watt light bulb, lasting about ten seconds before it either fades or dissipates with a small explosion. Some people have reported that ball lightning burned through screens or melted through windows.

What causes ball lightning?

Scientists can’t explain exactly what it is, or what causes it. Several theories have been proposed, including the idea that it may be caused by plasma. Plasma clouds are made up of charged particles that are able to combine into atoms and glow with light. Conventional lightning may be the energy source. Another theory proposes that lightning striking a surface forms a vapor which mixes with oxygen and burns, releasing chemical energy.

Military applications   

The U.S. military began studying ball lightning as a possible weapon in the 1960’s. A 1965 report, Survey of Kugelblitz Theories for Electromagnetic Incendiaries, examined theories at that time and proposed a program to develop a weapons application. As a result, the Air Force developed a program called Harness Cavalier, which later ended without any conclusive work. 

Strange tales   

Many strange stories involving ball lightning have been recorded since 1754. In that year, the first recorded incident in scientific literature occurred when a Russian scientist was working in a thunderstorm to measure the energy of a lightning strike. Reports say that a blue, fist-sized sphere came out of his equipment and floated towards his face. It exploded, killing him and knocking his assistant unconscious

Another event occurred in Paris in 1849 during an electric storm. A red ball hovered about 20 feet above a tree, burst open, and released several streaks of lightning. One streak of lightning hit a house, blowing a hole in it. The remnants of the ball began spinning and then exploded, knocking down three pedestrians.

More recently, a Pennsylvania woman in 1960 reported a large red ball coming through a window, without damaging the window or the blinds. The ball went from the living room to the dining room, then exited through another closed window. Once again, there was no damage to the window. The woman reported tingling in the back of her neck when the ball passed her. She touched the spot with her hand but didn’t feel anything. When her husband later came home from work, the back of her hand was burned and the hair in the back of her head fell out.