20th century French depiction of ball lightning flying through a window.
Credit: Louis Poyet/Wikimedia, Public Domain

 

Significant attention is now being given to Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP), recently bolstered by the Galileo Project, led by Harvard scientist Avi Loeb.

An upshot of such research is that UAP studies may foster the discovery of — or better scientific explanations for — potential new natural atmospheric phenomena.

For example, ball lightning is on the baffling phenomenon list, described as luminescent, spherical objects that vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. While ball lightning has been reported for centuries, this phenomenon has not been consistently observed by scientific instruments.

Eyewitness accounts

Enter a new website hosted by New Mexico Tech physicist Richard Sonnenfeld and Texas State University engineer Karl Stephan. Their goal is to collect eyewitness accounts to improve the basic understanding of the phenomenon. Reported accounts will be compared to weather radar systems to characterize the factors that may well trigger ball lightning.

Texas State University engineer Karl Stephan.

Stephan has conducted investigations of naturally occurring luminous spheroids, which include various phenomena such as ball lightning, even “earthquake lights.”  Several of the researcher’s publications deal with laboratory phenomena that replicate or clarify various reported properties of ball lightning, including its degree of apparent opacity, its motion under the effects of a net charge, and its persistent glow.

 

Credit: Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU)

 

Sensor systems

“Ball lightning was an unexplained aerial phenomenon long before anyone heard of UFOs,” Stephan told Inside Outer Space. “There have been recent calls for increased scientific investigation of UAPs using all-sky cameras and sensor networks to acquire data in an organized way that would allow a systematic analysis of sighted objects.”

Stephan says the same kinds of sensor systems that would look for UAPs would also be useful for observing ball lightning, and similar kinds of data processing would be needed to filter out the explainable data (e. g. airplanes, balloons, meteorites, etc.) in order to focus on what you are looking for.

“I think a serious observational and experimental effort to explain ball lightning would take us far in the direction of explaining UAPs, with the advantage that we already have a rudimentary understanding of ball lightning, such as its association with thunderstorms,” Stephan adds.

“Perhaps if UAP research moves from the shadows of fringe science into the mainstream,” Stephan says, “the same thing can happen to ball lightning research, as similar methods are needed for both.”

FLIR
Credit: DOD/U.S. Navy/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Precise position and time information

Have You Seen Ball Lightning? If so, Sonnenfeld and Stephan are eager to hear from you.

That information would allow the scientists to answer the following questions:

1) How frequently ball lightning associated with natural lightning?

2) In cases where it is associated, how nearby does the lightning need to be?

3) Is there anything special (e.g. polarity, max current, structure, multiplicity, continuing currents) about the natural lightning or thunderstorm that is associated with ball lightning production.

Other elements of those filing reports are also of interest. In particular:

— What does the formation and destruction of the ball look like?

— Is the path consistent with hot buoyant gasses? 

— Is the path consistent with a charged object inducing charge in other objects and tending to trace surfaces?

— How does the ball pass through windows?  Does it ever pass through electrical conductors?

As their website explains, despite thousands of published reports of ball lightning and a scientific literature comparable in volume to the literature on conventional lightning, researchers still have no idea of what mechanisms create or power ball lightning. “Our hope with this site is to get reports that contain precise position and time information regarding ball lightning.”

Resources

Go to this website to file a ball lightning report at:

http://kestrel.nmt.edu/~rsonnenf/BL/#REPORT

Also, check out this article from the American Geophysical Union’s Eos.org: “Have You Seen Ball Lightning? Scientists Want to Know About It” at:

https://eos.org/articles/have-you-seen-ball-lightning-scientists-want-to-know-about-it

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