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Strange Ball Lightning Caught on High-Speed Video

The phenomenon is rare and unpredictable in nature
Related: Earth
Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014

A video recorded by accident of ball lightning in China is now shedding light on the phenomenon's mysterious origins, researchers say.

Ball lightning occurs as glowing spheres ranging in size from a golf ball to a very large beach ball (1 to 100 centimeters, or 0.4 inches to 39 inches, in diameter). These fiery orbs can be white, yellow, red, orange, purple or green, and can persist for seconds or even minutes. Ball lightning typically appears during thunderstorms and usually hovers near the ground, drifting over the Earth at a few miles per hour, but it has also been seen on ships and even within airplanes.

Over the centuries, people have reported thousands of sightings of ball lightning. However, these occurrences are rare and unpredictable in nature; as a result, "our knowledge of ball lightning so far is based mostly on accidental, eyewitness reports," said Eli Jerby, a microwave researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel, who did not take part in this study. [Countdown: Earth's Weirdest Lightning]

Chance video

Scientists, including Jerby, have previously recreated ball lightning, or something very much like it, in the lab, results that suggested ball lighting was mostly the result of lightning striking the ground and vaporizing minerals in the soil. Still, it remained uncertain whether natural ball lightning really happened in the way that the experiments suggested.

Color images of ball lightning as it changed over time. (J. Cen et al., Physical Review Letters)

This latest recording adds valuable new information, even though it happened unintentionally. During field work investigating ordinary lightning in Western China on a summer night in 2012, scientists by chance took a high-speed video of natural ball lightning from a distance of about 3,000 feet (900 meters). The giant orb shed light over an area up to about 16 feet (5 m) in diameter and moved about 19 mph (31 km/h) before dissipating.

The ball lightning was visible for only a scant 1.64 seconds. Nevertheless, this was enough time for the researchers to analyze its light, which is important because the color of light an object gives off can yield insights on its makeup. Elements and molecules each give off very specific patterns of color when heated that can act very much like fingerprints.

Changing colors

The ball lightning changed from purple to orange to white to red before it faded. The Chinese scientists detected traces of soil elements such as silicon, iron and calcium from the ball lightning. These results may be the first thorough measurements of natural ball lightning, said Jerby.

These findings support the notion that conventional lightning striking the soil generates ball lightning.

"The new results shed light on the ball lightning enigma and provide valuable information about its initiation, evolution and properties," Jerby told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

In the future, "a more comprehensive theory of ball lightning needs to be derived in a manner that incorporates parts of the many independent theories existing in the literature," Jerby said. In addition, "valid laboratory demonstrations of ball lightning shall be developed, possibly advancing our fireball experiment, in order to demonstrate the main characteristics of the natural ball lightning in the lab."

The scientists who took video of the ball lightning detailed their findings online Jan. 17 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Follow OurAmazingPlanet @OAPlanet, Facebook and Google+. Original article at LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Funny, like rogue waves ball lightning was considered to be non-existent once upon a time. One of the strangest things I've ever seen was a bolt of lightning hitting the surf at Deerfield Beach, FL. A t'storm was moving in fast from the west and people were racing off the beach. I was on the 7th floor of the HoJos on the beach and watched a bolt of lightning hit the water around 15 feet from shore. There was a 'halo' of lightning on the water's surface for an instant probably 10 feet in diameter. Fortunately no one was anywhere near it. It was a perfect circle that flattened out the surf. So cool.

January 22 2014 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi, Belive it or not when i was very young around 10. I was staying at my sisters place and i had the window about 1/2 way open there was a small thunder storm going on at night and that happen to me A brite Round Ball cam in the window and it rolled around the floor of the room with a light buzzing sound and then it went back out the window. I Never Could Figer it out but now im sure it was ball lightting. I told People about it No one belived me. but it was true. now at the age of 63 I still think about it.

January 22 2014 at 12:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Many extraterrestrial lander vehicles, like those that crashed in Roswell in 1947 are huge highly charged electrostatic particles, like toner in a xerographic copier.

January 21 2014 at 7:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The theories developed using Russian observations across the wide open flat tiaga - brought to scientific attention by the indigenous people living there - took years of observations. Folklore turned many of these "common sightings" by these people (but not to scientists not living there) had thrown up myth after myth - both good and evil - many existing today. There are still words that are used and artwork of these "ghostly" figures. In explanation, the scientists - understanding these "apparitions" to be "balls" (some having "tails") of plasmatic magnetic electricity. At the time it was already understood that a "friction" from the above clouds moving over the Earth pulled charges from the Earth that reached down with an "answering reach" from the surface of the opposite charge. Where they met - contact - seen or unseen - completing the circuit - lightening would occur. However, the "cast off" from the area of completion of the circuit "shed whirls" of energy. Some dissipating photo electrically the same as the strike. Around the conduit, however, a mild glow of green, or red, or purple, etc., was left in one scientist's peripheral vision denoting the powerful comingling of the main charges. Some "balls" left the strike area heading off until they apparently disappeared. Of course everyone's eyesight had to return to normal from the flash even using special glasses. After collecting measurements, data and observations from those there and the anecdotal information of the people - he heard of another occurrence that he investigated having nothing to do with lightening and the round anomalies tossed from lightening strikes. This from a scientist examining the precursors to earthquakes. It seems that certain earthquakes - not all - heralded their coming by the rock strata releasing gases not otherwise known to be disturbed from movements/stress about to be released - developing movement above them that did not produce radiating waves outwards - but upwards. Straight up. Like Radon or Nitrogen, Ozone, etc., the land holds these gases deeply until some disturbance makes it be released in a greater quantity than what which would otherwise be considered "normal". Easily remembering the peat bogs in Russia and the Methane burn offs from melting - he looked into it. Sure enough the information from Santa Barbra and from the Russian tiaga showed one piece of the puzzle that came together. Not enough to make theory into fact - the experiments happened to record such - but were not set up the same - and other phenomena could claim unto the same theory - but more of an understanding began. It would certainly be interesting to see what turbulence occurred in both which these gases - perhaps specifically - to rise to the surface and release from their previous restraints.

January 21 2014 at 7:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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