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The Mysterious Phenomenon Ball Lightning


By James Donahue

May 2005


A story in the UK Evening Telegraph about a bolt of lightning that blasted a hole in the roof and jolted electrical appliances in a house in Barham Close, Stranground, prompted weather specialist Peter Van Doorn to declare the strike a “fireball.”


Van Doorn, director of the Ball Lightning Research Division of Tornado and Storm Research at Oxford Brookes University, said his personal research caused him to believe that whatever struck the home of Kristy and Michael Dawson was more than a normal lightning bolt.


It happened in the midst of an electrical storm, however.


Van Doorn noted that “a fireball is very different from a bolt of lightning. They fall down from the sky, and have been seen to enter houses before exploding. They have ripped holes in walls and in roofs, and have caused all sorts of strange occurrences.”


What was interesting about the Van Doorn report was that he theorized that the wide, flat landscape in and around the town of Stranground may have had something to do with the ball lightning that occurs there relatively often.


I have seen ball lightning on our family farm in Michigan, which also was on broad, flat land that stretched for miles. Our 100-year-old two-story brick farmhouse stood tall and stark with only a cluster of trees that my father planted and some out-buildings to protect it from the storms that whipped across the open fields.


We lived there during the early days of television when the nearest station was more than 100 miles away. My father erected a giant antenna, reaching about double the height of the house and anchored in the center of the roof. He had numerous guywires securing that antenna to every corner of the roof, and a thick copper ground wire lead from its base, past a row of ornate lightning rods and down the side of the house into an iron bar driven deep into the earth.


That copper wire passed directly between two large windows to our living room, facing the rear of the house. There was a big plush couch in front of those windows, which was a favorite place for us to sit or sometimes nap when we were at leisure.


I can say from experience that the worse time to be seated on that couch was during an electrical storm. That house attracted every electrical charge the sky could muster for miles around. We were struck repeatedly by lightning bolts that crackled and snapped their way down that copper wire. It was not comforting to be sitting in that couch and by those windows.


As a further precaution, my father had his television antenna wires attached to common plug jacks in the back of the television set. At the first sound of thunder in the far distance, the routine in our home was to always disconnect that antenna by pulling the plug. Failure to do so almost surely meant buying a new television set. Also we rarely left the house for any length of time without disconnecting the antenna, just in case a storm came up before we got home again.


That was how bad it was in that house.


And yes, we sometimes saw ball lightning.  I never thought of the balls of crackling energy as dangerous, however. They sometimes rolled through the wall and danced across the floor in front of our eyes. I don’t recall seeing any of them explode, however.


Our neighbor said he once saw a very large fire ball roll across the top of our barn roof. He thought it set the barn ablaze and was about to rush off to summon the fire department. When he looked again, the ball was gone and the barn stood intact and safe.


Dad had very good lightning rods and another thick copper ground wire linking them to the ground beside the barn as well. He knew what he was doing.


Ball lightning was always something that I compared to the stories about St. Elmo’s Fire, an odd phenomenon that sometimes occurs in the woods and often around swamps.


Sailors at sea told about watching balls of light moving along the ship’s rigging, or hanging on the masts during electrical storms. One story told of a ball like that that remained so long at the tip of the mast that some of the sailors scaled the mast to get a close look. They actually dared one another to touch it.


The sailors called the phenomenon St. Elmo’s Fire.


Its source is as much a mystery today as it was in the old days when ball lightning got that strange name.


Obviously Mr. Van Doorn doesn’t know much more about it than we did, even though he is supposed to be a specialist in that kind of thing.


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