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Scientists Finally Capture Authentic Ball Lightning

For centuries, ball lightning has captured the imagination of witnesses and defied scientific explanation, but now Chinese scientists have managed, by sheer chance, to capture an example of the mysterious lights on camera.

The image was actually obtained in 2012, in the Qinghai region of China, by researchers observing lightning during a thunderstorm using just a simple video camera in conjunction with a spectrometer, a device that used to measure the components of different types of light in order to identify the substances that may have produced it. The camera recorded a sizeable spark of ball lightning measuring 16 feet wide, which glowed continuously for about 1.6 seconds and floated for a distance of some 50 feet.

The eerie objects had been dismissed by the scientific community for years, and until the 1960s were not even believed to exist at all. They were often explained away as optical illusions or "swamp gas", a type of glowing light formed by methane rising from marshes. More recently, however, the phenomenon has been taken more seriously and research has been conducted in order to discover exactly what the balls of light really are.

Researchers at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado attempted to simulate the glowing orbs under laboratory conditions in August of last year; to create the phenomena they used high powered electric sparks discharged by electrodes partly submerged in electrolyte solutions, which resulted in a display of ball-shaped lights. Unfortunately, the researchers were not certain that the effects were in fact ball lightning, and so they christened them 'ball-lightning-like atmospheric pressure plasmoids'.

Authentic ball lightning can actually be quite dangerous when encountered at first-hand, and there are reports of buildings being ignited, and witnesses being injured or even killed. Most sightings occur during thunderstorms, and the size of the balls encountered range from tiny lights the size of a golf ball, up to huge spheres of several meters in diameter.

The recent photographs obtained by the Chinese researchers are the first examples of genuine ball lightning captured as they occurred randomly in nature.

‘I think that this is a unique observation that is probably of ball lightning, or one type of ball lightning,; said lightning specialist Martin Uman of the University of Florida, in an interview with the American Physical Society. ‘There have been many research programs that routinely video or photograph natural and triggered lightning,’ he said, ‘but none, as far as I am aware, has stumbled on a ball lightning.’

After more than a year of research, enough evidence has been gathered from the spectrograph readings to determine how the balls may have formed. The readings showed that the balls of light contained the chemical elements silicon, iron and calcium which were also present in soil local to the event. From this evidence, the scientists were able to add weight to a hypothesis put forward by John Abrahamson, of University of Canterbury in New Zealand, back in 2000, when Abrahamson had suggested that the balls were formed when lightning made contact with the ground. He theorized that the extreme heat generated by the lightning would vaporize silicon dioxide in the earth, creating a shockwave that threw gas up into the air. If there was also carbon present in the surrounding environment, this would attract the oxygen portion of the silicon dioxide, leaving a stream of pure silicon vapor which could then be suddenly re-oxidized by the atmosphere, causing a brief explosion of light.

The authors of the Chinese study are remaining objective and do not believe that their findings confirm Abrahamson's theory unequivocally, suggesting that there are other mechanisms that could explain their results, but Abrahamson is jubilant and believes that his work has now been validated:

"Here's an observation which has all the hallmarks of our theory. This is gold dust as far as confirmation goes," he said.

Sightings of ball lightning have been reported from all across the globe, and in Australia the Aborigines have their own name for the glowing orbs, calling them "Min Min Lights. They are often mistakenly referred to as "St. Elmo's Fire" which is a different entity, although, like lightning, it is also glowing plasma energy; however, St. Elmo's Fire is a corona discharge that is known to occur when there is an imbalance in electrical charge. Sightings of ball lightning have often been mistaken for UFOs, and during the second world war matched the description of "foo fighters," an unusual and repeating phenomenon where pilots saw small balls of light moving in strange trajectories alongside their airplanes.

It is claimed that one notable sighting was beheld by British occultist Aleister Crowley, who saw what he referred to as "globular electricity" when sheltering in a cottage during a thunderstorm on Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire in 1916. His account describes how he "noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve inches (15–30 cm) in diameter, was stationary about six inches below and to the right of my right knee. As I looked at it, it exploded with a sharp report quite impossible to confuse with the continuous turmoil of the lightning, thunder and hail, or that of the lashed water and smashed wood which was creating a pandemonium outside the cottage. I felt a very slight shock in the middle of my right hand, which was closer to the globe than any other part of my body."

Whatever causes the strange and fleeting orbs, they will remain a magical sight to those lucky enough to see them and finding a scientific explanation for their existence almost destroys their mystique. Some intriguing eye-witness accounts have further enhanced their enigmatic reputation, as these have claimed to observe "intelligent" behavior in the floating spheres, describing how balls have entered homes through doorways and traveled down hallways, or appeared to "chase" stewardesses down the aisle in commercial aircraft.  Some prosaic scientific explanation could undoubtedly be found for these occurrences, but such anecdotes add to the many great earthly mysteries that taunt logic and stimulate our imagination. 

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  • Image Credit:
  • MorgueFile

I, as a thorough debunker of ball lightning, and in spite of said facts, am declaring this a certified and genuine photo of a U.F.O.

Priceless, Thank you for that. Made me smile.

If "scientists" say it's ball lightning than it has to be ball lightning, but if they said it was a UFO everyone would call BS on their findings. Strange world we live in, no?

Years ago, my father told me that back in the early 1950s (in the early days of TV), one evening he and his family (my grandparents) were sitting in their living room watching their first TV as a thunderstorm was passing over. He said that ball lighting came down their chimney, floated across the living room floor, and entered the TV, causing the TV to explode. It was a frightening experience for the family.

Among the unusual sightings my wife and I have experienced,a ball of lightning appeared not 100 ft ahead as we drove down hwy 17.It occurred during heavy rain about 3 miles from the hwy 1 junction in the early 80s.I guess we can now call it a real. But science still has to prove the huge triangle we saw 15 miles south of tucson, or the strange wiley coyote appearing creature we saw jogging up the hill at about 2 am in the morning in the santa cruz mountains... Waiting

Years ago there was a thunderstorm going on during the night when my husband and I were in bed sleeping. A particularly loud clap of thunder had has both sitting up in the bed immediately. Floating over our bed was a ball of bluish light about the size of a basketball. It slowly dissipated and faded away. I said, "Did you see that?" My husband said, "I don't know, what did you see?" :-)

As we discussed the incident the next morning, I told him that I felt sure we had seen ball-lightening. I am so glad that they are finally finding proof, although it sounds a bit tentative from the scientists' perspective. It's funny, though, that a photograph will suffice as proof of ball-lightening, but not for other oddities like ghosts and UFOs.

Ironically, my house has also actually been struck by lightening in the past too, so I have learned that my location is really a 'sweet spot' for all kinds of other unusual activity, including a real 'UFO' right outside my second-story bedroom window. Did I mention that we also have an ancient Native American burial ground less than a mile away and right here in the neighborhood? :-)

A friend of mine swears that he saw a ball of light a couple of feet across drifting down the road, whilst standing outside the front of his mates house at a party once. I have no reason to disbelieve him....apart from the fact that he'd probably had a few drinks :-) ...also my Auntie and Uncle saw a ball of light scoot down the valley where they live (in the middle of nowhere in Cumbria)...classic UFO stuff.

My mother lived in India from the time of her birth in 1923 until the year following the end of the British Raj and India gained its independence (1947.) She then moved to England with her family. Many were the astonishing, true tales she told of her childhood experiences during her years in India. As was the norm for British children in that time and place, she attended a boarding school far from home, in her case a convent school in Dalhousie, in the Himalayas. One Sunday all the children were attending mass when the cross atop the church tower was struck by lightening. She said that was scary enough but what was even more terrifying was the brilliant white, buzzing, ball of light that manifested straight after the lightening strike in front of the church altar, hovered for a second or so, then whizzed up the aisle between the pews full of shocked children! The existence of ball lightening was never in doubt to my mother as she witnessed it personally in a most dramatic way.

Sorry I posted twice.

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