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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 00:26 GMT
Ball lightning baffles scientists
Ball lightning, Brett Porter
Ball lightning over Queensland, Australia
Image: Brett Porter

This picture of the freak weather phenomenon of ball lightning was taken by a wildlife ranger in Queensland, Australia, in 1987.

It seemed to do a few little detours around the room before it passed through the back wall

Ball lightning witness
It has just been published after he read about ball lightning research and sent it to a scientist.

Ball lightning occurs so rarely that few photographs of it exist and researchers have had to rely on eyewitness accounts, some of them from previous centuries.

The term describes small natural fireballs which very occasionally follow ordinary lightning, floating across land or through buildings and aircraft.

The UK Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions A outlines the current state of knowledge of the puzzling phenomenon.

  • The fireballs last around 10 seconds in some cases
  • The lightning balls move around, sometimes downwards, sometimes upwards, sometimes indoors, sometimes through glass
  • The ball often disappears in an explosion, sometimes causing damage
One account referred to in the journal describes ball lightning seen in Papua New Guinea:

"The ball of lightning (which was actually about the size of a cricket ball) came out of the clumps of bamboo, passed through the front wall of our house, moved very quickly through the lounge room and disappeared out the back wall.

"The ball of lightning moved at about head height and was clearly visible in ball form.

"After it came through our front wall, it did not move in a straight line to our back wall; in fact, it seemed to do a few little detours around the room before it passed through the back wall."

There are several theories which might explain ball lightning.

One says ordinary lightning sometimes causes matter to separate. Another says ordinary lightning hits the ground or a tree and dislodges a glowing mass.

A third says fuel gases are ignited by electrical charges in the atmosphere and a fourth says the luminous globe is a product of electromagnetic radiation.

Given the sparse evidence, it will be difficult for any of them to find clear proof in the near future.

See also:

03 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
New lead for fireball riddle
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