We've contained electricity. Constrained it. Placed it behind walls and in wires, funneled it into vast networks arcing high above our heads and buried deep underground. But it still has a few secrets left — here are 10 of the strangest natural electrical phenomena ever recorded.
Also called “dirty thunderstorms”, these lightning strikes occur in the wake of massive volcanic eruptions. There's no consensus on the cause, but many experts believe that plumes of ash create enough static electricity to generate the storms.
Another type of lightning still not fully understood — and not even officially recognized until the late 1960s. Those who have seen ball lightning often describe it as hovering just a few feet above ground, crackling, fizzing and occasionally exploding. Some claim it moves into buildings and floats down hallways, avoiding people and other objects. Scientists in China speculate the balls may be the result of vaporized silicon oxide; after a ground lightning strike, the released vapor reacts with oxygen to produce a glowing orb.
At the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, a lightning storm rages almost 300 nights per year. Each night tens of thousands of bolts rain down, possibly caused by rising methane swamp gas meeting billowing Andes' winds — no matter the source, the end result is beautiful and terrifying.
First observed by sailors, St. Elmo's Fire is an other-worldly blue or violet flame that appears around ships and heralds the end of powerful storms. The explanation? A difference in voltage between the sea and surrounding atmosphere which causes the ionization of gas, especially at high points such as the top of masts. This effect also occurs at the top of church steeples and around airplane wings. Photo by Tom
Also called the “electromagnetic dawn chorus,” Whistlers are high-pitched sounds created in the upper atmosphere during lightning storms. They're said to sound like birdsong by the “hunters” who chase them down.
Sprites are a kind of plasma discharge which result in massive, bright-red flashes up to 50 kilometers across. Due to their high altitude sprites are largely harmless but planes or monitoring equipment caught in their wake could suffer electrical failure.
Occurring on powerlines, these bright lights may be caused by static buildup on nearby towers and lines, and may provide an explanation for the number of “UFO” sightings in these areas. Photo by wikipedia
Not all mysterious electrical phenomenon are storm-related; the animal kingdom is full of uniquely charged animals. The platypus, for example, tracks prey using the 40,000 electric sensors on its beak.
Despite its familiarity and ease-of-use, there's still much about electricity we simply don't know. Fortunately, there are a host of natural phenomenon to help us better understand — and improve.