Study explains the mystery of ball lightning

October 12, 2012
CSIRO explains the mystery of ball lightning
Ball lightning. Credit: iStock)

(—Sightings of ball lightning have been made for centuries around the world – usually the size of a grapefruit and lasting up to twenty seconds – but no explanation of how it occurs has been universally accepted by science.

In a paper published in the Atmospheres entitled 'The Birth of Ball Lightning' CSIRO and Australia National University scientists present a new mathematical theory which explains how and why it occurs.

Previous competing theories have cited from thunderclouds, oxidising aerosols, nuclear energy, dark matter, antimatter, and even as possible causes.

CSIRO scientist John Lowke discusses ball lightning and the significance of his new theory on the 'birth of ball lightning'.

Led by CSIRO scientist John Lowke, the new theory focuses on how ball lightning occurs in houses and aeroplanes – and how it can pass through glass. His theory also proposes that ball lightning is caused when leftover ions (electric energy), which are very dense, are swept to the ground following a .

"A crucial proof of any theory of ball lightning would be if the theory could be used to make ball lightning. This is the first paper which gives a mathematical solution explaining the birth or initiation of ball lighting," says Lowke.

Lowke proposes that ball lightning occurs in houses and aeroplanes when a stream of ions accumulates on the outside of a glass window and the resulting electric field on the other side excites to form a ball discharge. The discharge requires a driving electric field of about a million volts.

"Other theories have suggested ball lightning is created by slowly burning particles of silicon formed in a lightning strike, but this is flawed. One of the ball lightning observations cited in this paper occurred when there was no thunderstorm and was driven by ions from the aircraft radar operated at maximum power during a dense fog."

Lowke used eye-witness accounts of ball lightning by two former US Air Force pilots to verify the theory. Former lieutenant Don Smith recalls: "After flying for about 15 minutes, there developed on the randome (radar cover) two horns of Saint Elmo's fire. It looked as if the airplane now had bull's horns...they were glowing with the blue of electricity."

Lowke's paper gives the first explaining the birth or initiation of using standard equations for the motion of electrons and ions. He argues it is unique because it not only explains the birth of the ball but also how it can form on glass and appear to pass through glass resulting in globes of light in people's homes or in aeroplane cockpits.

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1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 12, 2012
Here is an interesting take on ball lightning.
1 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2012
Ball lightning, I think, is superconducting Rydberg plasma.
The energy of such "superconductor" is about 500Watt*30seconds for 5cm ball radius.
I wrote about it earlier, excuse in Russian, at superconductivity page Теория сверхпроводимости сверхтекучести
not rated yet Oct 12, 2012
The Rydberg plasma model is not new and I don't understand, which problem its superconductivity could actually solve (except the lack of opportunity for promotion of your SC theory). The Rydberg atoms are highly excited and they can accumulate a lotta energy by itself.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2012
The description above does not match my observation of ball lightening. During the 1938 hurricane I lived Poughkeepsie, NY. I was five years old. The lightening show during the hurricane was intense with frequent discharges. I observed a bright, glowing ball in the sky through a window. It persisted for more than an instant and then collapsed or exploded with a very thunderous bang. If on the window, the clap would have busted the window. It did not. Even though I was five years old, at the time, I have not forgotten the experience. I have seen no other lightening like it.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2012
Interesting study but can eye-witness accounts be used to verify a theory? Surely verification requires the creation of a lightning ball under controlled conditions.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2012
You can make a pretty impressive ball plasma by discharging a kilojoule-scale capacitor bank into a bucket of salt water. A copper sulphate solution has been used with Russian physicist originally at the beginning of the last century. Of course, the plasma balls are way less stable and dense than the natural ball lightning. In particular, they are too buoyant in air.
4.1 / 5 (14) Oct 14, 2012
Interesting study but can eye-witness accounts be used to verify a theory? Surely verification requires the creation of a lightning ball under controlled conditions.
Guess you missed this?

"A crucial proof of any theory of ball lightning would be if the theory could be used to make ball lightning."
1 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2012
The real problem with ball lightening is that there is most likely more than one cause and more than one explanation. Ball lightening sometimes passes through solid objects but has also melted glass. It can appear after a lightening strike, but also on a clear day.
greg h
3 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2012

Almost every thunderstorm, when I was a kid in Ga. we would watch multiple balls of lightning -float & dance, hover & drift, until it got boring & we went back to homework, or watching Columbo, or whatever we did in 1971.

I dunno what has been discovered, but it is not consistent with the the ball lightning manifestations my family saw dozens of times.
You're barkin' up the wrong tree.
not rated yet Oct 15, 2012
Before proposing any other explanation one would want to exclude all the cases where people where observing phos­phenes i.e. illusions.
And when this is done we can look if there are enough cases left to do some qualitative research. And if these cases are consistent enough to attribute them to the same (real) phenomena.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2012
I think the more You understand in one area, the less - in another. Recently, it was little known about supercapacitor i.e. electric double-layer capacitor. You can build it yourself from activated charcoal and acrylic lacquer. The volume can be small, but the surface area be "infinite".

In the cities of the past was a lot of carbon and carbon powder. Can there be that at the base of ball lightning lies "natural supercapacitor" from H₂O and carbon powder?

For example: for begin, only one drop enters in discharge, and is charging negatively, then the others are attracted to this drop, which are originally charged positively, or as a result of dipole polarization. I.e. supercapacitor collects polarized particles, grows, and simultaneously discharges across grounding, what is the ball lightning.

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