The phenomenon of ball lightning has intrigued scientists for hundreds of years. This fantastic apparition, very real but very little observed, is sometimes confused with a meteorite, a UFO or even a spirit.
Known as globular or plasmoid lightning by scientists, this phenomenon has been described in historical texts for a very long time: these luminous balls which break off from a storm are even capable of passing through windows, walls or planes! Some credible testimonies even describe seeing balls of lightning pass through the room in which they were. Moreover, ball lightning would have already been responsible for deaths.
Ball lightning filmed on June 20, 2022 in Gironde. © Cedric Dufort and Laurie Orozco
Old testimonies, before the evidence in images
One of the first testimonies dates back to 1638, when everyone present in a church in England would have seen a ball of lightning pass through the stained glass windows: the building would then have caught fire and several people would have died. In 1753, the Russian scientist Georg Richmann was struck by a ball of lightning and died instantly. In literature, Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earthwritten in 1864, evokes the observation of ball lightning during a violent storm at sea. The Adventures of Tintin also describes the phenomenon in several albums.
With the development of photography and video, ball lightning could finally be proven, but still not truly explained. One of the rare witnesses of this extraordinary phenomenon in Europe is Bernard Radelet. He was able to immortalize the appearance of ball lightning on a particularly clear shot on August 13, 2015 in Jemeppe-sur-Meuse, Belgium.
While the weather situation was classic in Belgium with a stormy deterioration rather common for this month of August, Bernard Radelet explains that he spotted the phenomenon on several of his photos: “ I went hunting for storms, but at the time I was just starting out in storm photography. In order not to miss a flash, I placed my camera in burst and automatic mode, with a print of 100 photos in 2 seconds. As soon as the flash appeared, I pressed the shutter. It is really a stroke of luck to have photographed it”.
Judging by the series of shots taken in bursts by the storm chaser, the phenomenon was visible for only 2 seconds and moved horizontally. Photo analyzes have ruled out the hypothesis of a meteorite or even a point of light resulting from the reverberation of water droplets on the device. Since the early 2000s, a few videos filmed in China, the United States and France have also made it possible to authenticate the phenomenon.
A mysterious formation in the sky or in the ground
If it is so difficult to obtain images of ball lightning, it is because the phenomenon is very rare and ephemeral: between 1 and 6 seconds, although some testimonies speak of a minute. Its color varies from white, yellow, orange, to blue and green, and its passage is accompanied by a crackling or blowing sound. Some witnesses also described a smell of sulphur, which is frequently found anyway during conventional electrical discharges.
Ball lightning filmed in North Dakota in July 2016. © Sanford Berg
These balls of lightning can move horizontally, or float motionless, hence the fact that they sometimes pass for a supernatural phenomenon. They would be a priori ” attracted” by the electrical installations, which could explain the testimonies of balls of lightning passing through a dwelling. When they disappear after a few seconds, it can happen without any noise, like being accompanied by a sound of explosion.
Their size is estimated at 20 or even 40 cm, and their temperature at 1,700°C. In 2012, Chinese scientists announced that they had recorded the trajectory of a ball of lightning with a wingspan of 5 meters in a thunderstorm, moving at a speed of 30 km/h over 15 meters in distance.
Ball lightning filmed above New Orleans in the United States in April 2012. © Crazyweathernews
Different hypotheses have tried to explain the formation of the phenomenon: the ball of lightning could come from an impact of lightning on the ground which created a chemical reaction between oxygen and the minerals of the earth, generating a ball of plasma. The presence of glass, such as that of a window, could also generate a reaction of the ions which would pile up above, producing a magnetic field, this one could generate a discharge in the shape of a ball.
None of these hypotheses has yet been confirmed, but ball lightning has been recreated with different processes in the laboratory. Balls of lightning have also been seen during earthquakes, without any thunderstorm. In this case, the friction of certain rocks would be able to generate electrical discharges, causing balls of lightning to spring from the ground, and not from the sky! To this day, the mystery of the exact origins of ball lightning remains unsolved.
Ball lightning filmed in California in 2020. © CBS Sacramento