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
Meg Elison, 38, Oakland, California
Emily Clanton, 24, Northern Virginia
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.