lightning ball spectrum of cloud to ground lightning strike and ball it generated

Ball lightning is generated (at left) by a cloud-to-ground lightning strike in China, with the bolt’s spectrum captured via spectrograph; photo by J. Cen, P. Yuan, and S. Xue, Phys. Rev. Lett. (2014)

A mysterious glowing ball that appears in the sky during thunderstorms for mere seconds has been baffling researchers and the general public for centuries. Because of its rare and unpredictable nature, this phenomenon called “ball lightning” had never been videotaped, and its composition had remained unknown.

Until now.

For the first time, and quite by accident, researchers in China captured video of ball lightning and its spectrum that was generated by a cloud-to-ground lightning strike, and it enabled them to confirm one theory about what makes up the glowing orb: dirt. Vaporized dirt.

The researchers made their findings and video of ball lightning public just a few days ago, as reported by NewScientist. The video is only 1.3 seconds but is slowed down to show its shape, color, brightness, and associated spectrum.

"I think that this is a unique observation that is probably of ball lightning, or one type of ball lightning," lightning specialist Martin Uman of the University of Florida in Gainesville told the American Physical Society. "There have been many research programs that routinely video or photograph natural and triggered lightning, but none, as far as I am aware, has stumbled on a ball lightning.

"This one certainly seems to be made of dirt."

From the NewScientist:

In 2012, Jianyong Cen and his colleagues at Northwestern Normal University in Lanzhou, China, were observing a thunderstorm in Qinghai, China, with video cameras and spectrographs. Purely by chance, they recorded a ball lightning event. When a [lightning] bolt struck the ground, a glowing ball about 5 meters wide rose up and traveled about 15 meters, disappearing after 1.6 seconds.

The spectrograph revealed that the main elements in the ball were the same as those found in the soil: silicon, iron, and calcium. The observations support a theory for making ball lightning put forth in 2000 by John Abrahamson at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Thanks to a by-chance videotape, we know much more about this electrical sphere called ball lightning.

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