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Bizarre Electrical Phenomena

High tension wires can glow with an electrical corona.

In September 1949 William B. Sanborn was standing in a marsh in Yellowstone National Park when he saw a "hazy patch of blue light" sweep toward him at several feet per second. The patch was one-hundred and fifty feet wide and almost a thousand feet long. As it reached him Sanborn noticed a drop in temperature and the odor of ozone. Keeping low to the ground the cloud flowed around him as well as other obstacles enveloping them in a strange halo of pulsating light. Sanborn could feel his scalp tingle, and felt the snapping of tiny sparks as he brushed his hair with his hand, but obtained no shock from touching any object on the ground or outside his car.

Exactly what Mr. Sanborn experienced is unknown, however it does resemble in it's appearance a phenomenon known as "Saint Elmo's Fire." Saint Elmo's Fire is a glowing electrical halo that can envelope the mast of ships, airplane wings and church steeples during stormy weather. As air masses of different temperatures move against each other the friction can create static electrical charges in air. The visible discharge occurs when the air comes near the conducting surfaces of some projecting object like a flag pole. It seems unlikely air friction caused by stormy weather is responsible for the Sanborn incident, however, earthquakes have been known to generate electrical phenomena and Yellowstone is a geologically active region.

During the earthquake on the Izu Peninsula in Japan on November 26th, 1930, "fireballs" and "auroral steamers" appeared. No explanation for these are known, however, they may be the result of friction as rock moved against rock during the quake.

The "fireballs" described during the quake sound very similar to "spook lights" observed around the world, though these do not necessarily appear during tremors. Many scientists do believe these lights are electrical in nature, though exactly what they are, and how they get created, are still subjects of speculation.

Glowing lights can also appear on high tension wires. These "corona" are also the result of static electrical charges building up on the towers and the lines. They may account for many UFO sightings that appear in the vicinity of power plants.

The most bizarre of all electrical effects is ball lightning. Regular lightning strikes when a thunderstorm cloud becomes negatively charged at the base and positively charged at the top. Why this occurs is not fully understood. When the charges become high enough a giant spark, the lightning bolt, occurs between the negative and positive areas to release the build up. Though about half of the lightning strikes occur between the top and bottom of the cloud, strikes also occur to the ground below when it becomes positively charged. The voltage potential between the cloud and ground is at least 10,000 volts (compared with 110 volts in house wiring) and the bolt superheats the surrounding air making it glow and causing a shock wave heard as thunder.

Ball lightning is a rare effect in which a glowing, drifting bubble of light, typically some eight inches in diameter, appears. On the very rare occasions it is seen, it often, though not always, follows a regular lightning strike. The very existence of ball lightning has for some years been controversial. Many scientists contended that the glowing ball was merely the after-image seen by the witness after a regular lightning strike. (An after-image is the spot you see in your eye after watching a bright light like a camera flash). More and more scientists are beginning to accept the existence of ball lightning as a true electrical phenomenon. In fact, scientists at the Edinburgh University Department of Meteorology had their own brush with ball lightning when one morning, after a storm, they arrived at their offices and found a two and one half inch round hole, with smooth edges, in the window. Since the glass was fused, it is believed it was melted away by the passage of ball lightning.

Ball lightning when seen can be terrifying. In August of 1966 in Crail, Scotland, Mrs. Kitty Cox was out walking her dogs when she heard a tremendous clap of thunder followed by screaming. She saw children running as a luminous orange ball came hissing toward her. "My dogs panicked," she recalls, "and I watched it as it went past very quickly, hissing and whirring, and went right across into the sea."

One of the best observations of the phenomena occurred when Professor R. C. Jenninson of the Electronics Laboratories at the University of Kent was flying in an Eastern Airlines Jet from New York to Washington in March of 1963. The plane was caught in a thunderstorm and struck by regular lightning. A few seconds later a glowing sphere emerged from the pilots cabin and floated down the aisle. The ball, which was also seen by a stewardess, continued down the aisle and disappeared near the rear lavatory.

Ball lightning lasts only a couple of seconds, or up to a minute, then it disappears by either exploding or dissipating. Exactly what it is is still unknown, but some scientists believe it is a sphere of plasma. Plasma is the fourth state of matter besides, liquid, solid and gas. It is hot, electrically charged and fluid-like. While it exists in abundance in the universe inside stars it is usually not found on Earth except at the heart of a nuclear explosion. How it might exist as a free-floating bubble under normal conditions is unknown.

An artificial version of ball lightning has been reported on submarines that use huge batteries to operate their engines. Improper connection of the battery causes an electrical discharge that sometimes reportedly spawns glowing, hot balls. Professor James Tuck, of Los Alamos Laboratories, heard about this and attempted to duplicate with effect using a submarine battery stored on campus. Most of his tests produced nothing resembling ball lightning, but in a final experiment before the lab was disassembled Tuck introduced a low concentration of methane around the area of the discharge. The result was an unexpectedly large explosion and the end of the experiments. Later, film from movie cameras operating during that last test showed something Tuck hadn't seen at the time: a four inch round glowing ball.

Observe an "After-image."

Fun with Static Electricity

More Links about Ball Lightning from Cool Science

A simulated photo of ball lightning.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1996. All Rights Reserved.