clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A comic-style illustration of a woman and a white-blue ball of light.

Filed under:

Ball lightning is real, and very rare. This is what it’s like to experience it.

Close encounters with mysterious, hovering balls of lightning, illustrated.

For millennia, people have been telling stories of mysterious spheres of light that glow, crackle, and hover eerily during thunderstorms. They’ve been spotted in homes, in rural areas, in cities, on airplanes, and even passing through windows.

They seem out of this world, but scientists believe they are indeed of this world. These apparitions are called ball lightning, and they remain one of the most mysterious weather phenomena on Earth. It’s the topic of this week’s episode of Unexplainable, which you can listen to here:

Ball lightning usually only lasts for a few moments, and it’s impossible to predict where and when it’ll show up. You can’t hunt ball lightning and reliably find it. Ball lightning finds you.

It’s rare, but many people have actually seen ball lightning. We have been talking to people who have reported sightings, and they’ve told us hair-raising stories. One woman said she saw ball lightning in her own kitchen! While these experiences were scary for some, all the witnesses we spoke to said they felt lucky to have seen ball lightning. They remarked on its beauty, on its literal awesomeness.

The scant (ostensibly verified) videos that exist of ball lightning in the scientific literature do not do these stories justice. So, we reached out to illustrator Elizabeth Galian to bring these tales to life. Now you can imagine this amazing natural phenomenon for yourself.

The text in these comics is from interviews with witnesses, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Ross, 52, Jacksonville, Florida

Woman narrating in cartoon illustration: I live in Jacksonville, Florida, the lightning capital of the US. Before my ball lightning experience, the two months prior, seven homes in my neighborhood were struck by lightning. It was November of 2018. I was home with my daughter, who I homeschool, and a severe thunderstorm started. That’s not unusual, but for November, it kind of is. It was very dark outside, with lots of thunder.
My daughter was becoming afraid, because she is afraid of tornadoes. So she asked me, “Mommy, do I need to go to the safe room?” And I said, “Let me turn on the TV, and I’ll check with Mike.” He’s one of our local meteorologists. No sooner had I come around the corner than I saw this ball of light hovering in front of my stove. It was very bright. It was a white light.
Close-up of blue-white ball. Narration: It was a perfect round sphere of light. It was about the size of a grapefruit, and it was just hovering there like something out of a science fiction movie. I froze. I didn’t move any closer to it, but I also didn’t back away.
It was a solid ball of light. It did not move. It just hovered. It was about 3 feet off the floor in front of my stove. And it emitted this humming sound, similar to what you would hear if you were near high voltage. It was like a zzzZZZZZZZZZZ. And I just thought, “What in the bleep am I seeing? What is happening? Do I need to be afraid of this?”
I can’t say with any certainty how long this happened, but it was long enough for me to stand there and stare at it and try to figure out what I was seeing. And then the ball, the sphere, began to expand and become much brighter. In fact, it was so bright that I couldn’t look at it anymore. I had to turn my head away. And by the time I turned back, it had vanished.
And then suddenly there was this massive boom right above where I was standing, and the ground beneath my feet shook and all of our windows rattled. It sounded like a bomb had gone off. And I was convinced that we had just been struck by lightning. I thought, “This is it.”
I knew that I didn’t imagine it. I knew that it was there in my kitchen.  I called the fire department, and they came out and they used heat-seeking equipment to check for electrical fires in the walls. They went up into the attic. They went up on the roof of the house and they checked everything. They were here for a long time, and they said, “We can’t find anything wrong. We think you’re okay.” And I thought, “Okay, well, we got lucky.”

Meg Elison, 38, Oakland, California

Another woman narrating: The first time I saw ball lightning, I was 9 or 10 years old. I had just moved to Southern California. It was my first time being on the West Coast. ... I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was not illegal to kick your children out the front door in the morning and say, “Don’t come home.” So we were outside all day. It was me and a couple of my cousins and my younger brother. We were on the grass in front of my grandmother’s apartment and we had a couple of cap guns.
And as I was sitting there putting the next couple of rounds into my gun, I can feel it before I can see it.  I have, like, a creeping sense of dread, and all of the little prepubescent hairs on my body stand up, and the air gets much thicker and much weirder. And you know that feeling when there’s something near you, there’s something in the room, there’s something looking at you. An instinct grabs the back of your neck and turns your head toward it.
So I had this feeling and just turned my head slowly. And it’s rising up out of the ground. It’s so bright that I can see it printed on my eyelids for, like, 10 minutes after. It’s like staring at the sun, and it moves really slowly, which is very uncanny because you think of lightning as, you know, fuckin’ lightning.  So it rises slowly up out of the sidewalk. And it’s, like, the size of a basketball. And it’s very close to me. I don’t think it was within arm’s reach, but probably 10 feet.
It crackles upward. It crackles downward. It is blazing blue-white, like a diamond on a revenge kick. It rises up, like, 10 feet in the air and then explodes — and it explodes at the exact same time as an extremely powerful, very close clap of thunder. So thunder and lightning, both at the same time.
Another woman narrating: I was about 9 or 10, and I got really into extreme weather events because I had been living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  So my way of coping was, okay, time to learn about everything that can possibly happen with the weather. I heard about ball lightning and I thought that was just so cool. I was really obsessed; I would go outside every time there was a storm. And it never happened. So then I became a skeptic.

Emily Clanton, 24, Northern Virginia

So I kind of forgot about it for almost a decade, and then I’m 21, I’m sitting in my living room. There’s a storm outside. The dog likes to have me next to him when there’s a storm because he’s giant and a coward. Then he gets really alert and I’m like, “Okay, this is unusual.” The only previous time he’s alerted like that, it was a really severe storm and a tree had fallen nearby. And I was like, “Do we need to get to the basement? Is it going to be safe?”
I looked outside — and we’re in front of these giant sliding glass doors — and there was just, like, this ball of light. And the first thought I had was not ball lightning, despite the fact that I had previously been really interested in it. The first thought was: Someone’s flying a freaking drone, because my neighbor’s kids had gotten a drone. If they were spying on me, I was going to kill them.
So I walked up to it, and the first thing I did was I flipped it off, and then I was like, “Oh, shit, this is not a drone.” I’m looking at it and I’m like, “Okay, am I seeing what I think I am seeing?” Because I had convinced myself it wasn’t real. And now it’s just staring me in the face. I’m a little short, so a little below 5 feet. And it’s just out there, just in front of me.
It didn’t move like lightning. It moved horizontally. It’s a little bigger than a softball — I guess “grapefruit” would be best — and a little fuzzy around the edges, and just really, really bright. When I looked away, it did the thing where you have the imprint of the thing you are looking at in your eyes. It was whitish. It wasn’t so much colorful as just bright.
It looked like a bad special effect. You know, it doesn’t quite blend into the environment. It was kind of like, you know, fuzzy around the edges; it almost didn’t look like it belonged there.  I had convinced myself that I had believed in something that wasn’t true and nobody wants to be a sucker. And then I’m looking at it and I’m like, “Oh, wow, I wasn’t wrong. It’s really, like, out there.”

To this day, scientists aren’t quite sure how these balls of light form, or even exactly what they are made out of. We also spoke to a couple of scientists who are trying to understand ball lighting, and even recreate it in their labs. More on that in this week’s episode, which you can listen to here.

Most of us won’t see ball lightning in our lifetimes. If you have seen it, scientists want to know: Submit your experiences to this database, and researchers may be able to learn some more.

Elizabeth Galian is an independent freelance designer and animator based in New York City. Her clients include Netflix, Google, the Wall Street Journal, Mailchimp, and iHeartMedia. Galian was given freedom in choosing character models and in designing the backdrops for the illustrations.

Follow Unexplainable wherever you listen to podcasts. And sign up for Unexplainable’s weekly newsletter. Every Wednesday, we’ll send you links to things we mentioned in the podcast, ways to contribute to our reporting, and stories to spark your curiosity.


10 ocean mysteries scientists haven’t solved yet


Astronomers spotted something perplexing near the beginning of time


How to catch a scientific fraud

View all stories in Unexplainable

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.