Unveiling the Mysteries of Ball Lightning: Is It Real?

By: Maria Trimarchi & Austin Henderson  | 
Digital illustration of a sphere with a cosmic background
People who claim to have seen "lightning balls" say they appear to hover over the ground, leaving smoky trails in their wake. Pobytov / Getty Images

When you shuffle around in your fuzzy socks and zap yourself on a doorknob, you've just experienced static electricity. Now, picture this electric sensation on steroids and you get lightning. Yes, the kind that can power a 100-watt bulb for over three months and is three times hotter than the sun's surface [source: National Lightning Safety Institute].

We're all familiar with the ordinary lightning bolt — but what about ball lightning? It's estimated that between one in 30 and one in 150 people around the world believe they have seen balls of lightning hovering over the ground, floating through walls and even killing people [source: National Geographic]. Stories of these glowing spheres go as far back as the Middle Ages — maybe even as far back as the Ancient Greeks.


Anecdotes and Witnesses

From peasants in the Middle Ages to Tsar Nicholas II in the 19th century, reports of ball lightning appearing in the midst of thunderstorms have left people puzzled. Some have even claimed to see these luminous balls floating through walls and reportedly causing harm.

One of the earliest recorded cases involves Georg Richmann, an 18th-century electricity researcher, who was unfortunately killed by what's believed to have been ball lightning.


Czar Nicholas II reportedly saw a floating orb of lightning during a church service as a child.
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today, between one in 30 and one in 150 people worldwide claim to have witnessed these glowing orbs. These "lightning balls," as some call them, often appear to hover over the ground or drift erratically, leaving smoky trails in their wake.

But despite multiple witnesses, most scientists are still scratching their heads trying to explain lightning ball sightings.


What Could Ball Lightning Be? Scientific Theories and More

Silicon, which occurs in the ground, could be the culprit behind ball lightning.
Kim Steele/Photodisc/Getty Images

There's no one-size-fits-all explanation for the properties of ball lightning. Over the years, theories have ranged from electromagnetic radiation to plasma bubbles. Some scientists even suggest that ball lightning consists of mini black holes formed during the big bang or charged particles interacting with the atmosphere.

The Silicon Hypothesis

Among the prevailing theories, the silicon hypothesis — proposed by John Abrahamson at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand — has gained some traction.


According to this idea, when lightning strikes soil rich in silicon, a chemical reaction occurs. The silicon particles combine with oxygen and carbon to create a glowing, fiery ball. Researchers in Brazil have conducted high-voltage experiments that appear to support this theory.

Other Speculations: From Plasma Ball to Atmospheric Electricity

While the silicon theory might explain ball lightning properties related to their appearance and disappearance, it doesn't account for other observed phenomena like ball lightning passing through walls.

Additional theories suggest that these orbs might be a form of "bead lightning," related to regular lightning strikes, or even some strange phenomenon involving microwave interference and ionized air.


Lab Experiments and Real-world Observations

Researchers haven't just been sitting idle. Efforts to recreate ball lightning have led to fascinating experiments involving "microwave drills" and controlled electrical discharges. The aim? To get direct measurements and further our understanding of this mysterious phenomenon.

Some reports indicate that ball lightning appears more frequently when there's a dense and dark cloud in the sky. Whether atmospheric conditions like these are an essential ingredient for the formation of ball lightning is still a subject of ongoing research.


Continued Efforts to Explain Ball Lightning

Efforts are underway to explain reports of ball lightning systematically. Organizations like the American Physical Society are encouraging scientific discourse, and international committees are collaborating to conduct statistical analysis.

The Impact of Ball Lightning Research

Understanding ball lightning could have broader implications in the field of plasma physics and even electromagnetic radiation. So, whether it's understanding energy source dynamics or the nature of electrical charges, the quest to solve the puzzle of ball lightning is more than just satisfying human curiosity.


How does ball lightning seem to defy the laws of physics by floating through walls? What causes the fiery globe to suddenly vanish, often with a violent explosion? These questions, and more, make ball lightning a subject that continues to elude complete understanding.

The topic, of course, is far from closed; it's a storm of questions and hypotheses that continues to captivate scientists and laypeople alike. So the next time you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, keep your eyes peeled. Who knows? You might just witness this elusive ball of light for yourself.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Castelvecchi, Davide. "Dusty fireball: Can lab-made blob explain ball lightning?" Science News. 2008. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/9308/title/Dusty_Fireball_Can_lab-made_blob_explain_ball_lightning%3F
  • "Flash Facts About Lightning." National Geographic. 2008. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/06/0623_040623_lightningfacts.html
  • "Great balls of fire!" The Economist. 2008. http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10918140
  • "Great balls of lightning." Physics World. 2006. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/24175
  • Handwerk, Brian. "Ball Lightning: A Shocking Scientific Mystery." National Geographic. 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/060531-ball-lightning.html
  • Holladay, April. "Great balls of fire! Ball lightning does exist." USA Today. 2004. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/aprilholladay/2004-07-30-wonderquest_x.htm
  • Johnson, R. Colin. "Ball lightning explained?" EE Times. 2007. http://www.eetimes.com/showArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=5NOO3GQHDIEG0QSNDLPSKH0CJUNN2JVN?articleID=196902085
  • Kingsley, Danny. "Ball Lightning Explained." Australian Broadcasting Company. http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s520317.htm
  • Kruszelnicki, Karl. "Ball Lightning." Australian Broadcasting Company. 2003. http://www.abc.net.au/science/k2/moments/s127660.htm
  • Muir, Hazel. "Ball lightning scientists remain in the dark." New Scientist. 2001. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1720-ball-lightning-scientists-remain-in-the-dark.html
  • Muir, Hazel. "Lightning balls created in the lab." New Scientist. 2007. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19325863.500
  • National Lightning Safety Institute. 2008. http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_info/media.html
  • "New lead for fireball riddle." BBC News. 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/628709.stm
  • "New light on ball lightning." Physics World. 2000. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2896
  • "Periodically I hear stories about ball lightning. Does this phenomenon really exist? Could a ball of plasma remain stable for several seconds, as some researchers have claimed?" Scientific American. 1997. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=periodically-i-hear-stori
  • "Powering Ball Lightning." Science News for Kids. 2008. http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20080130/Note3.asp
  • Salleh, Anna. "Ball Lightning Bamboozles Physicist." Discovery News. 2008. http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/03/20/ball-lightning-physics.html
  • Than, Ken. "Mysterious Ball Lightning Created in the Lab." LiveScience. 2006. http://www.livescience.com/environment/060223_ball_lightning.html
  • "­Tsar Nicholas and his family." New Russian Martyrs. Russian Orthodox Church. 2007. http://www.pravmir.com/article_101.html