Holy Lightning Balls! What the Heck?

It seems lightning is getting worse…more deadly and more common. Golfer Phil Mickelson’s hotel was hit by lightning in Illinois knocking off the chimney and starting a fire. And severe weather shut down last night’s Backstreet Boys concert in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Recently five workers in Wellington were blown off a roof by a bolt of lightning killing at least one. But did you know that lightning comes in balls too?

Ball lightning may be an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, the physical nature of which is still controversial. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms, but unlike lightning flashes, which last only a fraction of a second, ball lightning reportedly lasts many seconds.

Laboratory experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but it is presently unknown whether these are actually related to any naturally occurring phenomenon. Scientific data on natural ball lightning is scarce owing to its infrequency and unpredictability. The presumption of its existence is based on reported public sightings, and has therefore produced somewhat inconsistent findings. Given inconsistencies and the lack of reliable data, the true nature of ball lightning is still unknown. Until recently, ball lightning was often regarded as a fantasy or a hoax. Reports of the phenomenon were dismissed for lack of physical evidence, and were often regarded the same way as UFO sightings.

Natural ball lightning appears infrequently and unpredictably, and is therefore rarely (if ever truly) photographed. However, several purported photos and videos exist. Perhaps the most famous story of ball lightning unfolded when 18th-century physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann installed a lightning rod in his home and was struck in the head – and killed – by a “pale blue ball of fire.”

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