What is Ball Lightning?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Ball lightning is an extremely rare and poorly understood atmospheric phenomenon that accompanies electrical storms. It manifests as a glowing ball about the size of a basketball, but sometimes as small as a golf ball or as large as a small car. It hovers in the air somewhere between a few seconds and a couple minutes, with an average of 25 seconds, then disappears either silently or with a loud bang. Some scientists have studied this lightning for upwards of 20 years and are still uncertain that it actually exists.

The prevailing theory about ball lightning involves clouds of charged water molecules.
The prevailing theory about ball lightning involves clouds of charged water molecules.

The phenomenon is so infrequent that not a single scientifically confirmed video of it even exists, though most scientists accept its existence because reports of it extend all the way back to Ancient Greece. Also supportive is that a majority of the reports that scientists do have tell a rather consistent tale, instead of varying dramatically, as would be expected if this form of lightning were merely a misidentification of more common atmospheric phenomena. When details vary too widely from the most common reports, it is likely a misidentification, wishful thinking, or fraud. It is plausible, however, that so-called ball lightning is merely an positive afterimage left on the eye in the wake of a lightning flash.

A newspaper in 1960 conducted an informal poll and found that 5% of respondents claimed to have witnessed ball lightning, though the true figure is probably much lower. If a relatively large number of people truly witnessed this type of lightning regularly, there would likely be video footage of it. Nevertheless, reports continue to come in, and it is sometimes regarded as a UFO — an unidentified flying object — something in the sky that cannot be readily identified.

The current prevailing physical theory for ball lightning is the atmospheric maser theory. Large clouds of charged water molecules are put into an excited state by electrical activity, briefly causing light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, or the laser effect. Before this can be confirmed as the true cause, however, it must be replicated in a laboratory first, which has not yet occurred. There may come a day when scientists can be sure that this lightning is a real phenomenon, but unfortunately for the enthusiasts, that day is not here yet.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


For you skeptics and people who have seen this phenomena:

I am a skeptic. I'm also a photographer and a trained observer (as a forensic engineer).

My sister and I were talking one night on the porch of our family cabin in Minnesota, looking north. I had been hoping to take some Milky Way photos but there was a very thin layer of high clouds above us. I knew it was very thin because we could see a few stars poking through. It was windy, coming from the south (to our backs).

I saw a lightning bug, which really caught our interest because neither of us had ever seen them up there. So we started looking for more. I saw the second one off to my left and that's when I saw the ball lightning to the west.

It descended (south to north) from my left in my approximate direction like a meteor, but slower, apparently from the high thin clouds. There had been noiseless lightning in the clouds all around before and after, so I think it was a castoff of lightning activity in the clouds.

Remember heat lightning? I've read somewhere lately that heat lightning is really just lightning that's so far away you can't hear the thunder. I don't buy it. I saw lightning all over the sky even though the clouds were very thin, and heard no thunder whatsoever.

The ball lightning was silent and left a long, lingering, solid white turbulent trail about 2-3 inches in height. The trail was smooth, not sparky, and not brilliant; as it fell it didn't noticeably illuminate neighboring trees. I watched it come down and blurted out that I had seen a meteor, although my mind already knew it was something odd. My sister and I watched it land in the woods very close by, lost it for a second or two, then saw it appear to take off again, more in our direction.

It stopped about 40 feet in front of us (just northeast of us) for a second, at a height of 3-4 feet, and we could now briefly see the little white glowing orb that had been making the trail. It was about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. It was glowing but transparent.

There was also -- for the same brief moment -- some sort of vertical, uniform light plane, shaped and sized like a thin, transparent book (but curved around the orb from the rear from our perspective) behind the orb. Then the orb shot off into the woods and was gone.

It really spooked me until I analyzed things the next day. Goose bumps were running up and down my goosebumps that night.

For all you folks who think we should have lots of photos/videos, dream on. It happens so rarely, randomly, and quickly that in most cases it'd have to be an accidental recording. Our episode lasted maybe 10 seconds, tops.

Believe me, I'm an avid photographer, and usually have a camera nearby, but I was far more interested in what I was witnessing than I was in possibly missing out on what became one of the coolest things I have ever seen. There was just no time for the camera, period. In fact, I was just trying to process the event -- everything I know did not explain what I was seeing -- and it didn't even occur to me to run to get a camera.


Ten years ago my father and I were talking in my garage about an automotive part I was holding in my hand, when a bright ball of lightning came out of my garage wall from about 45 degree angle, knocking out what I had in my hand and continued straight to the garage floor. To this day, I have no idea what my father and I saw that day and what that bright ball was. The size was about like a tennis ball.


Ten years ago my father and I were talking in my garage about an automotive part wish I had in my hand, when a bright ball of lightning came out of my garage wall from about 45 degree angle nocking what I had in my hand and continued straight to the garage floor. To this day I have no idea of what my father and I seeded that day and what was that bright ball. The size was about a tennis ball.


I have seen several videos of it, though! How do we know these are not real? I'm pretty good at spotting hoax videos, and ones that are computer generated. Just like the descriptions, these are balls of light in various sizes. Sometimes there is lightning that can be seen, other times not. They seem to appear suddenly, sort of float around, and then disappear. Sometimes like a pop, one I saw simply grew smaller until it was gone.

I've also read reports of ball lightning randomly appearing with no noticeable storm, even in a living room, and it floated towards the television. There are documented cases of lightning traveling across the sky from a place with a storm, to another place with clear skies and then suddenly appearing there instead.

I don't agree with the illusion of after effects from seeing lightning, because this does not apply if you don't see any lightning, and wouldn't that be a streak, rather than a spot as when you accidentally look at the sun? I agree that some mistake ball lightning for UFOs, but most 'UFOs' are Chinese lanterns, or satellites, or some other things.


My daughter and I saw ball lightning, along with about five others, on Sunday in Adinkerke Belgium. We were parked on the street opposite a takeaway. The road was on my daughter's side. We saw a bright white ball -- a bit smaller than a football and surrounded in more light -- come from behind and when just in front of the van in the middle of the road, 5 feet away, we all heard a very loud bang like a cannon and then it disappeared.


@shell4life - It could be because it simply doesn’t exist. I am with you on the thought that we should have at least one recording of it somewhere. With our current technology, the fact that we don’t have any confirmed evidence of it makes me think it isn’t real.

I don’t know what people are seeing when they think they are witnessing ball lightning, but it must be some other thing that we already know exists. I would be more willing to accept the existence of UFOs and aliens than ball lightning.

I would like to be proven wrong, because if scientists could manufacture the effect in a lab, it would be an awesome thing to see. Until that happens, I’m buying the UFO theory.


It is very strange that we have no video footage of ball lightning. We have footage of other things that happen in a flash, like unique streaks of lightning and shooting stars, so why don’t we have any ball lightning?

I know that it’s rare, but surely someone somewhere has filmed it. Maybe they just don’t want to give up their footage.

Think of all the people who film storms. Many of them do it hoping for a tornado, and others just want to capture cool effects of lightning. I find it hard to believe that not one of them has ever captured this phenomenon. I think they are just keeping it a secret.


I once saw something strange that I think could have been ball lightning. It happened during one of those intense summer thunderstorms with loud thunder and plenty of lightning. I am the only one who saw it, so my friends questioned my sanity.

I was looking out the window of my bedroom at the active sky. It was dark out, so the effect was really cool. I saw what looked like green ball lightning hovering low in the clouds. The ball was huge, and it lasted maybe ten seconds before it seemed to turn off its light with a loud bang.


I have a friend who claims to have seen ball lightning. He said that during a thunderstorm at night, he was outside on his front porch when he saw something weird.

He said it looked to be about the size of a soccer ball. It glowed as brightly as the streaks across the sky, and it appeared to be neon white with a hint of yellow. He said it was hard to look directly at it for very long.

It was hovering about four feet in the air and traveling down the road toward his house. He was too intrigued and stunned to go grab a camera, because he didn’t want to miss a thing. Once the ball got close his yard, it faded out.


@MrMoody - Thunder and lightning have been known to produce a variety of atmospheric effects that look eerily similar to UFO crafts, ball lightning being one of them.

However, the article states that ball lightning is so rare that there is no video of it, even for scientists who are studying it. How they are conducting their studies, I have no idea.

With UFOs, however, there is abundant footage, and even if you discount 95% of it as easily explained, that leaves 5% that has not been explained. So I don’t buy the UFO ball lightning explanation.

I would love to see a direct manifestation of ball lighting myself, however, or something else like the Aurora lights, just for the sheer beauty of it.


@anon14557 - It’s quite possible, actually – even probable.

Some time ago I read an online article that purportedly explained the “real” secret behind the UFO phenomenon, and ball lightning was implicated as the culprit.

This made it plausible for scientists to accept since it’s a physical phenomenon and easily explainable. They said that this was supposed to put the issue to rest once and for all.

For me, however, it does not. That’s because the ball lightning facts do not line up with what witnesses have observed as true UFO behavior, like the ability to move quickly at right angles and in velocities which defy the current laws of physics.

Ball lightning might mimic the UFO’s lights and its ability to hover silently, but I think the similarity ends there.


I live in texas and one day in a huge lighting storm i saw something strange floating around and it looked like an alian craft, but it had purple pinkish colors like lighting and i couldn't verify what it was. Can it be ball lighting?

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