Ball Lightning

The Myths and Mysteries of "Ball Lightning"
By Peter van Doorn, Director of BL Division.

"The fireballs were mainly red or orange in colour, and lit up the sky like an atomic bomb before falling from the cloud and into the sea with explosive force."

An observation of ‘Ball Lightning’ during a phenomenal storm at the coastal town of Seasalter, which overlooks Whitstable Bay, Kent, in the blazing summer of 1959. The disturbance erupted at night, and at least four remarkable "fireballs" were observed by a number of witnesses. This report was sent to me by TORRO member Michael Skinner, of Ware, Hertfordshire, whose mother Marjorie was one of those who saw the "fireballs."

"I was in Coventry on the night of the great German air raid in 1940. I thought I had managed to shut out of my memory the sounds of that terrible time. But that awful explosion brought it all back. It was nothing like thunder. It was just like a ‘landmine’ going off."

Description of an explosion heard by a resident of Shoreham, a town on the coast of West Sussex, England, during a ‘Ball Lightning’ event in November 2000. The ‘landmine’ referred to by the witness, was a massive aerial bomb used by the Luftwaffe, and in fact a converted sea mine, dropped on a parachute, and fitted with a fuse designed to activate just above the earth’s surface. These terribly destructive weapons were noted for the appalling sound they created.

During a heavy thunderstorm over London, a group of about ten children in Maryon Park, Charlton, were terrified to see a yellowish-red ball of fire fall from the clouds. As it descended towards them, they could see the globe spinning, or "whirling round and round." They all fled in terror, believing "the sun was dropping out of the sky."

A circumstantial account of a "ball of fire" that fell to earth around 1930, as related by Irene Chatfield, whose son Christopher is TORRO’s official artist and illustrator. When I met Irene in April 2003, she added that the globe actually landed on the ground, and then rolled towards her at great speed before disappearing.

"My granddaughter, aged 6, was talking about the ‘lightning ball,’ and said it was like a volcano because of the sparks."

Extract of account written by Mrs Patricia Pusey, who lives almost directly opposite my house in Shoreham, describing a mysterious ball of light that appeared over her garage during an exceptional ‘Ball Lightning’ event in September 2003.

The phenomenon usually described as ‘Ball Lightning’ (BL) is without doubt one of the strangest and most controversial subjects ever to be confronted by physical science. Despite over three centuries of data collecting, and a period of about two hundred years in which various theories as to its nature and origin have been proposed, a satisfactory conclusion to the enigma remains elusive.
There are no specific circumstances in which the phenomenon manifests, and despite its common name, it often has no connection with actual lightning discharges.
These are some of the atmospheric and geophysical environments in which the mysterious balls of light can appear:

  1. Electric storms, regardless of duration and intensity.
  2. During falls of rain, hail, or snow.
  3. During windstorms or cyclones.
  4. During the passage of tornadoes over land or water.
  5. Throughout periods of volcanic activity.
  6. During any kind of seismic disturbance, from violent earthquakes to mild tremors.
  7. During curious low altitude ‘auroral’ displays.
  8. From the sea, and bodies of fresh water.
  9. From the ground (regardless of atmospheric or geophysical conditions).

Also, throughout the planet, for thousands of years, human beings have witnessed curious balls of light that manifest with total disregard to atmospheric or environmental conditions. So common are these appearances that they have become part of the folklore of various lands: from Wales to the Malay Peninsula, from Texas to Tasmania, from the Lochs of Scotland to the Mekong River, and so on. These ‘lights’ are remarkably similar in appearance to BL, and, despite the fact that no specific ambient conditions are necessary for their existence probably have the same origin. The ‘Witch Fireballs’ of the Rio Grande, the ‘Min Min’ lights seen in Queensland, and the sinister light-emitting phenomenon called the ‘Corpse Candle’ in Britain and Ireland, all belong to the same phenomenal family, and BL might be described as their highly energetic cousin.

It should also be noted that inexplicable quasi-meteoric bodies, of which there are literally thousands of reports in the archives of astronomical and UFO societies, are often identical to BL, and are certainly not extraterrestrial rocks, metal, or visiting spacecraft.

‘Ball Lightning’ is basically a Globular Light-emitting Object or ‘GLO’. However, its ‘usual’ spherical form may be distorted (fusiform, pear-shaped, ovoid, oblate spheroid etc.), or apparently absent altogether (flame, cone, cylinder etc.). On some occasions its symmetry is interrupted by a streaming or pointed tail, rays or ribbons of light may burst from its envelope, and even horns or spikes have been displayed. It may also appear as an amorphous mass or a stream of light.

In an attempt to bring some order to the many thousands of reports personally examined, I looked for consistent signs of actual behaviour. It soon became obvious that the phenomenon, regardless of the circumstances of its manifestation, has four distinct basic behavioural modes, to which I have given appellations that are self-explanatory:

  1. The ‘Fireball’:
    A Globular Light-emitting Object (GLO) that may shoot through the air at high velocity, or more commonly descend vertically, or obliquely to earth and explode like a bomb or depth charge. On occasion the ‘Fireball’ will emerge from land or water, and ascend into the sky.
  2. The ‘Apparition’:
    A GLO (Globular Light-emitting Object) with little (it may oscillate) or no motion, that can manifest in the air or on the ground, and has been observed to spontaneously appear within a room in the manner of a ‘ghost’. Though apparently the most undemonstrative form, the ‘Apparition’ may climax in a loud explosion and produce definite physical effects.
  3. The ‘Roller’:
    An exceptionally strange and on occasions, lethally destructive GLO, that travels over the surface of both land and water with a distinct rolling motion.
  4. The ‘Navigator’:
    A GLO with (a ‘brain’), that has been observed to both enter and exit buildings (even the Faraday Cage that is the interior of an all-metal aircraft) as if ‘under control’. This is the phenomenon in its most perplexing mode, but, as it has been carefully and closely observed, reports of its manifestation cannot be ignored.

The writer and traveller, George Borrow (1803-1881), gives a wonderful description of a BL/GLO Fireball in ‘Lavengro’, which reads like a novel but is in fact more an autobiography:

"I was about a few yards only from the top of the ascent, when I beheld a blaze of light, from whence I knew not; the next moment there was a loud crash, and I appeared involved in a cloud of sulphurous smoke. I was half stunned; but I now hurried forward, and in a moment stood upon the plain. Here I was instantly aware of the cause of the crash and the smoke. One of those balls, generally called fireballs, had fallen from the clouds, and was burning on the plain at a short distance."

The Fireballs can be lethal:
In 1780, one of the sons of King George III, came close to be being killed by a Fireball, that flew like a rocket out of a black cloud and collided with his neighbour’s house, leaving two male employees dead. This occurred at a resort on the coast of East Sussex.

In 1809, during a squall, "three distinct balls of fire" dropped like bombs on HMS ‘Warren Hastings" moored in Portsmouth Harbour. Two seamen were killed instantly, and a third terribly injured.

GLO Fireballs are far too impatient to wait for electric storms, and have a disturbing habit of dropping out of a clear blue sky without warning. Such events have had dramatic effects:

Charlemagne, the mighty Emperor of the Franks, was thrown from his horse when the poor beast was struck down by an energetic discharge emitted by a passing Fireball. This occurred during his final campaign against the Saxons, and on a day when the sky was clear and serene.

Henry II of England suffered a total nervous breakdown after witnessing a ‘thunderbolt’ fall from a serene sky, and actually died shortly afterwards.

In the year of destiny, 1492, on a perfectly clear day, a fulmine, or ‘thunderbolt’ damaged the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence. Truly a sign from heaven!

The Fireballs are still falling:
"I noticed a huge ball, mainly red with a red fringe all round it – travelling, not slowly but not quickly, towards the earth. As it was almost down it disappeared behind [a] wall – then [came] a most terrific BANG!"

Extract of brief report to TORRO describing an incident at Earby, in the Pennines, near the York/Lancashire border, on 17.07.2003. The explosion was the climax to a violent thunderstorm.

I had the interesting, but extremely disturbing experience of witnessing the sight and sounds of a BL/GLO Apparition explosion in September 2000. (Another witness, who saw the thing just before it burst open, said it looked like a large ball of white light hanging motionless in the sky.) As the globe burned with different coloured flames, ‘bolts of slow-moving lightning’ emerged and one passed over the roof of my house. The sound was absolutely awful, and I really believed the roof had been torn off, but amazingly no damage was visible. At least 5 other ‘Apparitions’ were seen in the locality that day.

One of the most interesting manifestations of a GLO Apparition yet recorded, occurred in the eastern USA, on 28.07.1883. The incident took place in an office situated on Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
H. M. Burt, editor of the appropriately named journal, ‘Above the Clouds,’ was at work when he suddenly experienced "a tremendous blow" on his back.

"I could not imagine at first what caused it, but instantaneously thereafter I saw a ball of fire, as large as a man’s head, in front of me, not three feet off. It exploded with a tremendous noise, seemingly as loud as a cannon, and then I knew what must have happened. My left leg seemed to be completely paralysed, and I fell to the floor."

In 1994, during a "dry thunderstorm," an enormous BL/GLO Roller was observed in Gloucestershire. Described by the principal witness as "a huge rolling bonfire" it disappeared in the direction of Avonmouth where on the same day a fire broke out in an oil refinery after a ‘lightning’ strike.
The ‘Roller’ can certainly be a killer, in 1826 a party of young persons on Worcester Beacon were struck down by one: two girls were killed on the spot and a third critically injured.
On other occasions, however, it has proved quite harmless. In Autumn 2000, I visited a convent in order to interview an elderly nun who had witnessed the phenomenon in her bedroom! She described to me how following a massive aerial explosion, the object had suddenly appeared on the floor beneath the window and rolled up to where she was sitting. Had she been frightened by this strange, uninvited guest? "No, certainly not, it was such a beautiful thing." Looking directly at and into the "Roller", she saw that it appeared to be composed of hundreds of coloured sparks. It disappeared without sound, and caused no visible damage to the floor or anything else in the room.

The BL/GLO Navigator is by far the most remarkable of these globes of light, and acts more like an exotic life form than some inexplicably sustained energetic discharge. It can ignore good conductors, or ‘hop on and hop off’ at will. It can descend and ascend, move backwards and forwards, travel at varying speeds, and even pause for a while. For most of its extended life, the phenomenon is in an apparent state of perfect equilibrium. It probes and explores like a curious animal, and approaches people and things as if it wants to play. The Navigator can pass through glass without effect on that unaccommodating medium or itself:

"During a small thunderstorm, my mother and I were in my living room. She was watching TV and I was reading. We were about 3 feet apart. The ball appeared outside a bay window, [then] passed thru the window moving horizontally across the room in front of my mom, and then in front of me, where it seemed to hesitate for a couple of seconds, and then moved back in the same direction it came from. The ball passed thru the window and disappeared."

Report sent to TORRO by a resident of Clanton, Alabama. The event occurred on 02.02.1998. The Navigator actually passed through the single glazing of the closed window, at the same point, in both its ingress and exit. I asked the writer to check the window glass for any sign of bubbles, discolouration etc. She did so and reported that the glass was totally unaffected.

The Navigator is insulated against good conductors such as salt water, as indicated by this remarkable account given to me by an Australian businessman many years ago:

In July 1968, a passenger ship was sailing in the Caribbean, when a ball of light was seen by at least two witnesses to rise from the depths to a level just below the surface, and then follow the vessel at a distance of perhaps 50 metres. After a period of about 20 seconds the object accelerated and, when it was close to the ship, suddenly rose vertically from the water to a point where it was about level with the vessel’s name painted on the stern. It maintained the same height and distance for a few seconds, then dropped back to sink into the water and disappear.

The following are some of the more commonly asked questions about the nature of BL/GLO’s, to which answers, albeit somewhat limited can be given:

  1. When did Ball Lightning first appear?
    While there is absolutely no way anyone could give a definite answer to this, it is reasonable to assume that the phenomenon probably manifested on this planet long before the first appearance of organic life. Recorded instances of mysterious GLO’s certainly date back to the works of writers who lived in Ancient Rome, such as Livy, Seneca, and Pliny the Elder.
  2. What size is BL?
    There are, within reason, no upper or lower limits, it may appear as a tiny spark barely visible to the naked eye, or even as a colossal glowing mass, perhaps hundreds of metres across, and ‘floating’ high in the sky like a glowing cloud. One of the most common descriptions, however, is of a globe of ‘fire’ or light about the size of a football, or similar to the apparent disc of a full moon. Descriptions received by this division since the Autumn of 2000, range from an object no larger than a Christmas tree ‘fairy’ light, to a vast amorphous monster that appeared over the centre of a large town, and exploded with the sound of a massive " wartime bomb."
  3. Has it a distinct colour?
    No, it appears in a range of colours, and many different shades of these. White, yellow, yellow-white, red, reddish yellow or white, blue, and green are the most frequent.
  4. How long does it last?
    The duration of the phenomenon cannot be defined, but often it may be no more than a few seconds, although much longer than that of actual lightning. The greatest known duration is that of a monstrous ‘ball of fire’, witnessed during a hurricane at Barbados in 1786: it remained visible for close to 40 minutes!
  5. Are these globes of light dangerous to human life?
    The answer to this is yes on some occasions, almost certainly not on others. There are many instances where BL has caused death and serious injury, although the last definite case in the UK occurred at Brixham, Devon in December 1895. A ‘ball of fire’ was clearly seen to strike a workman on the head, killing him instantly. Another man was critically injured. (Interestingly, TORRO founder Dr Terence Meaden has described a case in which a man survived after jumping on BL at Brixham in December 1991. On this occasion the man escaped with burns to his foot.) After examining hundreds of events in which BL has caused death or serious damage, and having personally interviewed witnesses who have been in a position to physically touch, or be touched by the phenomenon, I can state without reservation that: PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH BL, OR ANY MYSTERIOUS GLOBULAR LIGHT-EMITTING OBJECTS SHOULD BE AVOIDED. Some of the globes are definitely highly energetic and potentially lethal, others appear to be quite innocuous, however, as there is no practical method by which the two types may be identified, it is essential to treat all manifestations with caution.
    It has been stated by a number of writers that ‘ball lightning’ kills animals but avoids harming human beings. There is absolutely no evidence to support this belief, in fact there are cases where people were selected for destruction and animals ignored. The advice of the TORRO BL Division is that ‘Ball Lightning’, like actual lightning, should be treated with the greatest respect.
  6. Where can I find out more on the subject of BL etc?
    Books on the subject are sadly few in number, and all difficult to obtain outside city libraries. Many of the cases of inexplicable light-emitting phenomena reported to TORRO have been published in the Journal of Meteorology. This journal, since the earliest issues, has consistently demonstrated both a positive and objective attitude to the subject, and many reports of great scientific interest have made their first appearance in its pages.
    Articles on BL, and related phenomena will continue to appear on a regular basis, and the journal should be considered essential reading for anyone seriously interested in pursuing the subject. Also, as many of the items are presented in a narrative form, or contain very straightforward descriptions of events, there is much that is interesting and informative for the general reader.
    Anyone truly fascinated by these strange and wonderful globes of light, and who would like to get more deeply involved in their elucidation, should seriously consider joining TORRO.
    I can honestly say that becoming a member of TORRO has certainly motivated me, with regard to the field investigation of BL/GLO events, to a degree that could not have been achieved had I remained outside the organisation. It has also led to contacts and working relationships that would not otherwise exist.
  7. Who do I contact if I have seen or heard of a ‘Ball Lightning’ incident?
    If you have personally witnessed an incident of ‘Ball Lightning’, a GLO, or an apparently allied phenomenon, or have knowledge of such an event that has been described to you by another person, then the BL Division would like to hear from you. While your permission to publish the details of reported events will be necessary, the name and address of a witness will only be included with their permission. From time to time such events are reported in local newspapers, or other media with a regional or specialised readership, and these, though often of great scientific interest, can ‘escape the net’. Therefore we are always most grateful to receive any data of interest appearing in such publications.

If you wish to report a sighting of ‘Ball Lightning’/GLO’s, or any other strange light-emitting phenomena, please use the Severe Weather Report Form.

Where possible include the following details:

  1. Your name and present address, with telephone number/ e.mail address, if available.
  2. The date of the event (if unsure, please give approximate date)
  3. The time of day (clock time am/pm; or morning/afternoon/night etc.)
  4. The location of the event
  5. Weather/sky conditions at time of event
  6. Your own description of what occurred to the best of your memory.
  7. A drawing or simple sketch of the appearance of the phenomenon.
  8. Any given info you do not wish to be published.

The information given by actual witnesses to the manifestation of ‘Ball Lightning’/GLO’s and allied phenomena, is of immense value to this division of TORRO, as each and every report, no matter how circumstantial represents another piece in the assembly of an extremely complex jigsaw.