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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