Typically speaking, ball lightning is an unexplained and potentially dangerous phenomenon that has been described for centuries, if not millennia. It has even been suggested that ball lightning could be the source of the legends that describe luminous balls, such as the mythological Anchimayen from Argentinean and Chilean Mapuche culture. These entities are described as little creatures that take the form of small children and can transform into flying fireball spheres that emit bright light. They are said to be the servants of sorcerers that are created from the corpses of children. Even the renowned British occultist Aleister Crowley reported witnessing what he referred to as “globular electricity” during a New England thunderstorm in 1916 on Lake Pasquaney. However, he seems to have encountered something natural, not supernatural. Crowley stated that he “noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve inches 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.”
Of course, this is just one account among many. In the book, Thunder and Lightning, a French science writer named Wilfrid de Fonvielle wrote: “On 10th of September 1845 a ball of lightning entered the kitchen of a house in the village of Salagnac in the valley of Correze. This ball rolled across without doing any harm to two women and a young man who were here; but on getting into an adjoining stable it exploded and killed a pig which happened to be shut up there, and which, knowing nothing about the wonders of thunder and lightning, dared to smell it in the most rude and unbecoming manner.” So, in general, the term ball lightning applies to any report of luminous, usually spherical objects that vary from a few millimeters to several meters in diameter. Unfortunately, scientific data on ball lightning remains scarce, owing to its infrequency and unpredictability. In fact, until the 1960s, most scientists treated reports of ball lightning skeptically, despite the numerous accounts from all around the world. Furthermore, the presumption of its existence depends on reported public sightings, which have produced somewhat inconsistent findings. Although most reports of ball lightning are associated with thunderstorms, the phenomenon lasts considerably longer than the split-second flash of a standard lightning bolt. Laboratory experiments can produce effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but how these relate to the phenomenon remains unclear. As part of this, the first-ever optical spectrum of what appears to have been a ball-lightning event was published in January 2014 and included a video at high frame-rate.
Surveys would indicate that about 5% of people have seen ball lightning, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes in duration. Most of these mysterious balls are seen outdoors during thunderstorms, being about the size of someone’s head but getting as big as a few feet wide in some instances. There have even been reports of orbs entering windows are traveling along the floors of buildings. Plus, during World War II ball lightning was observed inside the cockpits of airplanes, and in the engine rooms of submarines. Of course, my favorite account is from Devon, England, back in October of 1638 during the “Great Thunderstorm”. Four people died at a local church and approximately sixty more were injured when, during a severe storm, an 8-foot ball of fire was described as striking and entering the church, nearly destroying it. The ball lightning allegedly smashed the pews and many windows and filled the church with a foul sulfurous odor and dark, thick smoke. The ball of fire reportedly divided into two segments, one exiting through a window by smashing it open, the other disappearing somewhere inside the church. That sounds more supernatural than natural to me, but the skeptics would tend to disagree. Plus, any claim of something supernatural should always be checked against every possible natural cause before being labeled as something otherworldly. In line with this, what many people claim to be UFO sightings seem to just be observations of ball lightning, so it’s important to understand what ball lightning is for a number of different reasons. That’s why I’m trying to keep an open mind about the whole thing, so as not to be too dismissive of something anomalous that may require some out of the box thinking to actually make sense of.
Still, the idea is that there must be a simple explanation of what this is and how it works. Thus, the academic community wants to be able to give an elegant solution to the problem of understanding what ball lighting is and does. The thing is that I suspect it’s not as clear cut as they say. Either way, in an effort to help account for this kind of thing, some scientists have speculated that when lightning strikes during a thunderstorm it must presumably vaporize some of the silicon in the nearby soil thereby releasing it into the air. Then, as the vapor condenses into dust it picks up an electric charge and then clumps together. The hypothesis is that silicon then combines with oxygen to produce silicon dioxide which releases energy in the form of photons. Of course, this wouldn’t explain the indoor occurrences. That’s why some have suggested that the electrical energy of a storm can create microwaves that energize water molecules. Then through the process of stimulated emission airborne molecules can shed their energy as glowing light. It is believed that this effect is further enhanced in the close confinement of a pressurized airplane or submarine. Thus, different phenomena appear to be the same thing, although they are caused by different circumstances. That seems to be the key to this whole thing. Again, I think there are many different factors that can lead to a range of phenomena which is collectively labeled as “ball lightning”. Then, again, maybe it does all just boil down to the same thing. No one really knows for sure, and that’s the whole point that I’m trying to make. The way I see it, ball lightning is just as mysterious today as it was centuries ago.
With that being said, there are certain paranormal researchers who have claimed that spirits can manifest as balls of light, but this seems to be at least primarily attributed to what is claimed to be photographic evidence. Ghost hunters, in particular, assert that circular artifacts appearing in photographs are really the souls of the dead, however, these always just turn out to be visual artifacts that result from flash photography illuminating a mote of dust. Thus, the claims have become even more prevalent in the 21st century, given that modern compact digital cameras are so commonplace and prone to this. So, I highly doubt that ball lightning is supernatural, but the jury is still out on this. This also makes me think of the “will-o’-wisps”, which are said to be the pranks of fairies and are most often associated with marshlands. The thing to consider is that natural light doesn’t just clump together and pass through the room the way that people have described. The image above from 1901 clearly illustrates an orb coming in through the window, almost as if it were aware of what it was doing. That’s why I personally think there must be a range of different things that all get lumped together in the same category as “ball lightning”. I base this on the fact that some eye witness accounts describe it as something that hovers in the air. Others claim that the mysterious orbs can float through walls. Still, yet other people have reported that ball lightning is very dangerous, claiming that it can melt things and burn people, or even explode.
This brings me to yet another intriguing case. In November of 1749, Admiral Chambers was aboard the Montague, where he observed a large ball of blue fire about three miles distant from them. So, the crew immediately lowered their topsails, but it came up so fast that before they could raise the main tack, they observed the ball rise almost perpendicularly, and not above forty or fifty yards from the main chains when it went off with an explosion, as great as if a hundred cannons had been discharged at the same time, leaving behind it a strong sulfurous smell. By this explosion, the main top-mast was shattered into pieces and the mainmast went down to the keel. It is claimed that right before the explosion, the ball seemed to be the size of a large millstone. With that being said, it would appear that science can’t completely explain what ball lightning is, at least not in every instance. Maybe people are just hallucinating when this happens. After all, theoretical calculations do suggest that the magnetic fields involved in certain types of lightning strikes could potentially induce visual hallucinations resembling ball lightning. Of course, this seems unlikely given that damage has been reported so often and to my knowledge, a hallucination can’t destroy anything. Plus, some ball lightning produces radio interference, and that’s not imaginary. So, maybe different chemical reactions create a kind of convergent effect, or maybe this is all just some rare form of plasma, or maybe people really were visited by aliens or angels, or even just their ancestors. Who knows? Maybe it’s all true! Then, again, maybe all of the explanations are wrong. The point is that no one really knows for sure what ball lightning actually is. So, ultimately, I guess we just have to keep looking for more clues…