Watoga Trail Report

A 1901 depiction of ball lightning entering a room through a window. Public Domain – Wiki

Ken Springer

Many thanks to Ruth Taylor, Sam England, and Bill Lindsey for their contributions to this story.

What in the World?
Ball Lightning

The Dunning family – the father and the three oldest children – had been baling hay all afternoon on their hillside farm in southeastern Ohio.

Dan said that he was tempted to keep on working while the hay was still dry. But ominous clouds were forming, and he thought better about exposing his children to a storm. Particularly so after a woman was struck and killed by lightning in this same field some years earlier.

He didn’t believe that old saw about lightning never striking twice in the same place, saying that only city folks believe such nonsense. He had a deep and abiding respect for lightning – the victim of the fatal lightning strike mentioned above was his aunt.

Dan stayed behind to work on the baler knotter while his teenage boys started for home. He said that time slipped away, and before he knew it, the rain started, and the volume of the thunder told him that lightning would soon arrive.

As he headed down the gentle slope toward Soggy Run Road, lightning struck close by, just within the woods that bordered the hayfield.

Then Dan saw something that he had heard stories about since he was a child, something he placed in the same category as fairies and leprechauns. In other words, something he had previously believed to be nothing more than a tall tale.

He would later say that a ball of bright bluish-white light, about the size of a basketball, appeared immediately after a lightning strike near the corner of a barbed-wire fence.

The fence line ran straight down the hill to the gravel road. From Dan’s vantage point in the middle of the meadow, the ball of light appeared to travel slowly along the top strand of the barbed wire to the bottom of the field. Then it disappeared into the ground from whence it came. 

Dan had a reputation for downplaying his accomplishments and deeds. If he told you he had caught a five-pound bass in nearby Seneca Lake, that bass was probably a pound or two heavier, and he probably hooked it on an ultra-lightweight fly rod to boot. Dan was not one to improve upon the truth in any and all matters.

Indeed, Dan, like many others, had seen what is called ball lightning or globe lightning.

Nevertheless, some folks are skeptical that ball lightning exists – just like Dan used to be until he saw it for himself. Humans are that way; ghosts don’t exist until we bump into one; metaphorically speaking, that is.

So, what does history tell us about ball lightning?

Accounts of ball lightning go back to ancient times. As long as the written word has existed, humans have reported seeing this unexplained atmospheric phe- nomenon – sometimes with fatal consequences for those in its path.

One notable account dates back to 1638 and took place in a church in Devon, England. Folks there still refer to the ball lightning calamity as the Great Thunderstorm. Witnesses claimed that an eight-foot ball of fire broke through a wall of the stone church during a service, killing four people and injuring scores more.

This ruinous specimen of ball lightning went on to smash the pews to smithereens, then made a grand exit right out one of the church’s stained glass windows.

The calamity was eventually credited to God’s wrath because two parishioners were playing cards during the sermon. Ironically, the errant gamblers were not among the casualties. 

Witnesses throughout the world claim to have seen ball lightning. But I want to go a little closer to home and share stories from our friends and neighbors here.

Ball Lightning in West Virginia

Are you looking for a good story? You have two choices in Pocahontas County – Jaynell Graham or Ruth Taylor. The following comes from Ruth.

In Ruth’s own words, “My mother and her sisters often spoke of ball lightning coming through the old wall-mounted telephone, and running under the chair of a black lady who was working with them. They were stringing beans at the time. Needless to say, it scared the bejeebers out of all of them.”

Bill Lindsey was one of the young folks who built the rugged and beautiful Jesse’s Cove Trail at Watoga State Park. He witnessed ball lightning first-hand while working with “special needs” students at a camp in St. Marys, West Virginia, back in 1968.

Bill described a condition that is consistent with nearly all reported sightings of ball lightning – a thunderstorm was in progress at the time.

Bill recounts how the students and instructors were all gathered in the recreation hall during the thunderstorm. Lightning struck the building, probably the electrical conduit. Immediately afterward, a basketball-sized orange ball emerged from the circuit breaker.

The orange sphere floated slowly across the length of the room as the onlookers froze in utter fascination. When the gravity-defying ball made contact with a metal doorknob, the doorknob went spinning across the floor.

As if satisfied with its performance, the ball lightning disappeared before the group’s eyes.

Sam England retired recently as chief of West Virginia State Parks. The following is an experience he had with ball lightning while fishing with his father some years ago. 

In Sam’s words, “My dad and I were fishing Meadow Creek along the road leading to Lake Sherwood. It was the April to May time period. Thunderstorms developed and, soon, we were surrounded by a spring storm.

The fishing was too good to stop, so we stayed out along the creek. One flash of lightning hit nearby, and a blue-white ball emerged from near the lightning strike. It continued to roll from the wooded area on one bank, crossed the creek, and onto the other bank. It left as quickly as it had come.”

Finally, let’s see what science has to say about ball lightning.

About now, you may be asking yourself – “Is this where the scientist steps onstage and declares ball lightning a hallucination as they did in the 1960s? Are these scientists going to put ball lightning in the same bucket with Bigfoot and the Mothman?”

Well, if our topic today was mermaids, then yes, but with ball lightning, scientists are not attempting to debunk it. Most scientists who have studied this phenomenon say that it “probably” exists.

And rightly so, that is about all that science can proclaim about any unexplained natural state without extraordinary evidence.

Unlike UFOs, this is one of those unique situations where the overwhelming number of sightings seems to trump the actual research data in establishing its existence. And to be fair, ball lightning is elusive and relatively rare, so studying it as it occurs is a near impossibility.

Plus, acknowledging the existence of ball lightning does not require a total reality shift as, say, belief in the Mothman or alien abductions.

So, does science have an explanation for ball lightning? No, not really. But they have some plausible hypotheses, although none of the laboratory results are a perfect match for how witnesses have perceived ball lightning.

There are essentially two broad explanations that science currently offers for the creation of ball lightning. Keep in mind that neither one is a 100% match for what witnesses have seen in terms of the range of colors, potential for explosive damage, etc.

The first version is that a plasma gas ball results when lightning strikes the ground, vaporizing the constituent minerals in said earth. Remember, lightning can peak at 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit; that is almost five times the surface temperature of our Sun. That is 10 times the heat required to turn minerals into a plasma state.

This is a plausible hypothesis because the presence of lightning almost always accompanies that of ball lightning. But can it be replicated in a laboratory? No, not to date.

An experiment with an electrostatic generator offers another explanation. This is a machine that produces static electricity. We’ve all seen the electrostatic generator, the gadget in which a sphere sits on a column, and when you touch the ball, your hair stands on end. Unless you’re like me – bald.

A rough approximation of ball lightning occurred when a German researcher introduced smoke into a charged field. Within a minute, a levitating ball of blue light formed.

So, is this the Holy Grail formula for ball lightning? Nope, it was interesting and beautiful but, if anything, it only demonstrated one facet of the observed behavior of ball lightning.

Our spherical and unpredictable mystery remains so.

Like quantum entanglement and dark matter, nature withholds many of her deepest-held secrets from the most intelligent, persistent and destructive creature on this planet.

Perhaps because, like the meme in the movie A Few Good Men, “We can’t handle the truth.”

Not yet, anyway.

Ken Springer

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