A giant lightning ball

A few years ago, a reader wrote to the 'Science Times' section of The New York Times about a lightning ball that was seen by her family to 'enter the glass front door, go right past us (or possibly even through us) in the living room and leave by the back window, where it hit a tree, causing some damage'. The Science Times commentator joked, 'Next time, take a picture', because it is one of nature's rarer phenomena and few photographs of it exist. It is also the least understood. Ball lightning has attracted the attention of scientists for two centuries, but it remains an enigma - dismissed by many as a myth or an optical illusion.

Over the years, scientists have collected thousands of accounts of sightings of ball lightning. In 2002 the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions presented a selection of recently reported sightings. One account describes a lightning ball as it entered through an open window in the pantry of a house in Johannesburg: 'It entered the kitchen around the corner then sped out of the kitchen again round another corner and into the passage and the hall where it hit the tin bucket with a clang! Certainly when we ran to check, the bucket was too hot to pick up and its paint had blistered!' In another account, a white-grey lightning ball 70 to 80 centimetres in diameter and with the glow of an incandescent lamp of 200 watts bounced on the head of a Russian teacher who was with her friends: 'It appeared as if from nowhere. We got frightened, squatted, and connected our heads, creating a circle. The ball suddenly began to move over us in a circle, and it also moved up and down. It was at a height of 0.5 metre above the ground. Then it "chose" my head and began to jump on it, up and down, like a ball. It made more than 20 jumps. It was as soft as a bubble.' The journal also listed an extraordinarily large - about 100 metres in diameter - lightning ball that was caught on colour film by a park ranger in Queensland, Australia. It was anchored to the ground and lasted surprisingly long, about five minutes.

One of the rare accounts of ball lightning witnessed by a respected scientist comes from the British radio astronomer R.C. Jennison, who encountered a lightning ball on a late-night flight in stormy weather in 1963. He described it in a letter to the journal Nature in 1969 as a blue-white glowing sphere a little more than 20 centimetres in diameter which emerged from the pilot's cabin and passed down the aisle of the aircraft approximately 50 centimetres from him, maintaining the same height and course for the whole distance over which it could be observed. It then passed through the metal wall of the aircraft.

From such accounts, scientists have painted a picture of this bizarre phenomenon, which is always observed during stormy weather. A lightning ball is usually seen as a free-floating, luminous sphere that shines for a few seconds to a few minutes before it either explodes with a sharp bang or flicks out in silence. It can be almost any colour, sometimes even a combination, but green and violet are rare. Its size varies from a small ball to a giant globe several metres in diameter. It may suddenly appear in the air, or even from holes in the ground, chimneys, sewers and ditches. It usually moves horizontally in the air (at speeds between 3.5 and 350 kilometres per hour) about a metre above the ground, but can climb utility poles and then dart along power or telephone lines. It can even dive down chimneys and squeeze through spaces much smaller than its size, but it never changes its size. It seems cool to the touch, but it may destroy electrical equipment, melt glass, ignite fires and scorch woods or singe people and animals. Sometimes a hissing or crackling noise can be heard. It may leave behind a sharp and repugnant smell, resembling ozone.

Ball lightning has been the subject of serious scientific research since the early 19th century, but no consensus theory has yet emerged. One of the popular theories is the plasma theory which says that a lightning ball is a sphere of plasma, or a hot gas of electrons and positively charged ions. Another theory that is gaining favour comes from New Zealand scientists John Abrahamson and James Dinniss. When lightning strikes soil, it turns silica in the soil to pure silicon vapour. As the hot vapour cools, the silicon condenses into a floating ball of silicon aerosol held together by electrical charges. The chemical energy stored in silicon is slowly released as heat and light. Because the ball would become visible only over the latter part of its lifetime, it would appear to materialise out of thin air after a lightning strike. So simple, yet so amazing! Unfortunately, most of us will never see it (about 1 per cent of the population will see ball lightning in a lifetime).

Like Tunguska, ball lightning is a favourite of both scientists and charlatans. Is there a link between Tunguska and ball lightning? Key in 'ball lightning + Tunguska' in Google's search engine and you will be instantly presented with a list of thousands of web pages. A close analysis shows that most of these are alternative science pages discussing Tunguska and ball lightning in a similar vein as UFOs and alien abductions. The scientific link between Tunguska and ball lightning seems tenuous.

In his book Cauldron of Hell: Tunguska (1977) the American science writer Jack Stoneley poses the question: could some particularly massive form of ball lightning conceivably be associated with the Tunguska event? To answer it, he quotes the British scientist Anthony Lawton, who was also the scientific editor of Stoneley's book, as saying that to cause such devastation would require a lightning ball nearly 1 kilometre in diameter. Stoneley claims that from eyewitness reports early Tunguska researchers reckoned the fireball to be about 1 kilometre across. 'This is so close that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Siberian monster might have been a giant lightning ball', he writes.

Can a lightning ball grow to such an enormous size? 'Lawton maintains it is possible, provided the ball lightning is composed in a particular way', Stoneley writes. 'He suggests that if the fireball is made up from dust particles bound tightly together by an electric charge, it could achieve these huge dimensions.' Lawton's prediction now sounds believable in view of the new aerosol theory of ball lightning.

David Turner, a British physical chemist now retired and living in the United States, looked at Tunguska and ball lightning in a different light. In an exhaustive analysis in Physics Reports he says that various studies of Halley's comet in 1986 found the temperatures in the plasma region of the comet to be much higher than expected. This looks like an exact analogy of the high temperatures implied for lightning balls, he says. He then went on to say that these observations could have relevance to 'one of the most spectacular and perplexing events' in the 20th century.

Turner lists five factors that do not support the asteroid theory:

■ The very high percentage (more than 10) of the energy released as electromagnetic radiation.

■ The occurrence, six minutes after the explosion, of a local magnetic storm that lasted more than four hours.

■ Optical anomalies (bright nights and so on) seen in some parts of Europe and Asia, which began a week before the event but peaked on the morning of the explosion.

■ The failure to find virtually any fine material on the ground that can be reliably associated with the impacting body.

■ An apparent change in direction of the falling body (both in the horizontal and the vertical plane) which occurred shortly before the explosion.

For Turner the most important outstanding question is the determination of the maximum temperature sustainable within ball lightning. Present estimates vary from 400 to 15,000 degrees Celsius. He believes that this is closely related to the question of whether the Tunguska event could have resulted from a natural hydrogen bomb explosion. He is implying that the plasma in the comet, which was like a lightning ball, was hot enough to start a hydrogen bomb reaction. 'It may be premature to discount the comet hypothesis at this stage', he advises.

G.G. Kochemasov of the Russian Academy of Sciences believes that partisans of the comet and asteroid theories fail to consider two important points. First, the anomalous atmospheric conditions long before the event. Second, the non-linear motion of the object. These two reasons are similar to those listed by Turner. Kochemasov says that a giant lightning ball can explain these two anomalies. The Earth's restless ionosphere causes various electrically charged events such as aurora borealis. As flights of ball lightning have been noticed along geomorphological boundaries, it is possible that a giant lightning ball formed in the Tunguska region, which is in an area of volcanic and tectonic activities. Thus, it was a home-grown product without any ET connections.

Kochemasov estimates the diameter of the lightning ball to have been about 200 metres. Such giant balls have never been observed but, he believes, we have to think in terms of thousands of years, or geological timescale. He cites two historical occurrences of giant ball lightning: the archaeological evidence suggesting that the ancient Indus Valley city of Harappa (now in Pakistan) was ruined after an enormous fire; and mention in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata of an 'explosion' that caused 'dazzling light, a fire without smoke'.

Kiril Chukanov, an independent researcher on ball lightning in Salt Lake City, Utah, also believes that the Tunguska fireball was an enormous lightning ball about 500 metres across. On his 'Chukanov Quantum Energy' website and in his self-published book, Final Quantum Revelation, he lists nine reasons in support of his hypothesis. They include:

■ The 11-year sunspot cycle peaked at the end of June 1908. This sunspot activity manifests itself in Earth's atmosphere by intensified geomagnetic activity and the presence of abnormal optical events such as bright night skies.

■ Ball lightning explodes because of the leakage of electric charges from the sphere and the resulting disintegration of its structureless nuclear component.

■ Ball lightning typically disintegrates into smaller spheres, which further disintegrate into still smaller spheres, until finally they explode. Eyewitness accounts of many explosions and simultaneous fire breakouts in widely scattered areas of the forest support a disintegrating ball-lightning scenario. ■ Other theories fail to explain the enormous amount of energy accumulated for a short period on the surface of the Tunguska object.

Chukanov also believes that ball lightning can be used to create 'free energy'. The American Physical Society's Bob Park has labelled Chukanov's ideas as 'voodoo science'.

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