On the Possible Mechanism of Ball Lightning, and Other Luminous Effects

Ball_lightning

If one were to take to a trip in the darkening autumn months to North Carolina, USA, and park up at Brown Mountain Overlook, somewhere between Morganton and Linville on Highway 181, one would have a good chance of witnessing the ‘Brown Mountain Lights’, a series of glowing orange spheres that hover just above the horizon.

Legend has it that these lights have appeared since the earliest days of the thirteenth century, although the first record that appears in print is from September 1913, in an article that appeared in the Charlotte Daily Observer. This article details the account of a local fisherman who witnessed these mysterious orbs appear several times over the space of a month.

Reports of these lights continued, prompting a formal US Geological Study in 1922. This study determined that the Brown Mountain Lights were nothing more mysterious than the misidentified lights of automobiles or trains.

So far, so mundane.

But, not long after the study was completed, an enormous deluge struck the area, completely flooding all the local roads and tracks, cutting off power and halting all traffic.

And yet, the lights continued. If anything, they grew more frequent.

They are still spotted to this day.

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So, just what are the Brown Mountain Lights? One theory postulates that they are examples of a phenomenon known as ball lightning.

Ball lightning is often, but not exclusively, witnessed during a thunderstorm. Unlike the split second flash of traditional lightning bolts, ball lightning manifests as a spherical, luminous orb ranging from the size of a pea to several metres in diameter. These orbs hover, pass through solid objects, burning or melting as they go, before exploding violently or fading away, leaving a lingering smell of sulfur behind.

Owing to the unpredictability and infrequency of the phenomenon, actual scientific data remains scarce. Its existence is almost entirely predicated on witness reports throughout history.

A few examples:

In July of 1852, during a particularly fierce storm, a tailor living in Paris witnessed a ball the size of a human head appear in the fireplace. This ball proceeded to travel around the room at waist height, before returning to the fireplace, floating up the chimney stack and exploding. The top of the stack was blown apart.

In April of 1925, in the town of Bischofswerda, Germany, multiple witnesses saw a large glowing orb land near a postman. This orb travelled along a telephone wire to a school, knocked a teacher who happened to be using a telephone to her feet, and bored several perfectly round tennis ball-sized holes through a glass pane. Over 200 metres of wire were melted that day, and numerous telephone poles destroyed.

In August of 1970, in the town of Sidmouth, UK, a large, sizzling red-lit ball appeared over the area during a violent thunderstorm. The ball exploded, knocking out nearly 2,000 television sets.

There are many more of these incidents scattered throughout history.

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In 2002, one Associate Professor John Abrahamson, a chemical engineer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, presented a theory to the Physics World Digest. This theory states that ball lightning is no more than a chemical reaction of silicon particles burning in the air.

First, a bolt of lightning strikes the ground. The tremendous energy present in the strike vaporises the ground, forcing a puff of hot silicon vapour to expand upward (silicon being the most common element in the ground).

This vapour then condenses into tiny particles, and electrical charges pull these particles into tiny threads. These threads are hot, very hot, and they begin to burn with the oxygen present in the air, forming a ball. The weight of the silicon is enough to counter the upward buoyancy, so the ball floats, as opposed to flying upwards.

Once all the silicon has been burned through, the ball either explodes or dies out.

Whilst Associate Professor Abrahamson’s theory is certainly interesting, it is worth noting that, for all his experiments, he has been unable to actually create an incidence of ball lightning under laboratory conditions.

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In 1936, a small team of investigators from the newly formed Psychical Research and Investigation Society travelled to the city of Ural’sk (now Oral) in the Kazakh region of the Soviet Union, to investigate an elderly medium known locally as Madame Sokolov.

According to the investigator’s notes, over the course of several sessions, Madame Sokolov was able to manifest small orbs of coloured light. She was able to control these orbs to a certain degree, making them rise to the ceiling and drop to the floor, and change in size and luminosity.

Astounded by this, the Society paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to have the medium brought to their Laboratory in London for extensive testing.

It is also worth noting here that, for all the Society’s experiments, they and Madame Solokov were unable to create any orbs of lights under laboratory conditions.

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In conclusion, ball lightning appears to be like so many incidents of paranormal phenomenon; ephemeral and difficult to pin down, existing only as eyewitness accounts and indistinct images, ghost lights and will-o’-the-wisps.

Once again, without someone willing to invest the time, money and resources into an extensive investigation, I fear the answer to the creation of ball lightning will remain a mystery.

Dr Thomas Gotobed 

More info on the Brown Mountain Lights can be found here – C.R. 

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The Gotobed Diaries

Curator of weird tales.

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