Great Balls of Lightning

Early scientists baffled by ball lightning

For the first time ever, scientists have managed to record ball lightning occurring in nature. As the name suggests, ball lightning is basically a ball of electricity that is reported to occur during lightning storms.

Despite people reporting sightings for decades and scientists creating it in the lab, ball lightning had never been reliably recorded in nature until now.

Scientists in China who were researching normal lighting managed to capture a video of ball lightning occurring… completely by chance.

In their paper, published in Physical Review Letters, the scientists described how the ball formed just above the ground out of thin air, travelled five metres, rose higher, travelled another fifteen metres and then vanished, all in less than two seconds.

They also showed some cool spectrograph images that could identify different materials in the ball lightning. It turns out that the ball wasn’t made of electricity alone; it also contained iron, silicon and calcium in it. These are basically the ingredients of sand and soil.

This is important because a leading ball lightning theory involves a regular lightning strike vaporising different materials in soil. The shockwave from the impact would push these vaporised materials out of the ground, including a chemical called silicon oxide which would glow as the air caused it to oxidise. This would cause a ‘ball’ of light to float away and then disappear once the material stopped glowing.

These new, accidental observations support this possible explanation for the formation of ball lightning, which is pretty cool considering that as recently as the 1960’s, scientists weren’t even sure if ball lightning existed.