If you thought the weather was just sunshine and showers what do
you make of balls of glowing light, showers of frogs, giant lumps
of ice that fall from the heavens, ships floating in the sky, and
many other weird sights? Weather can behave in very bizarre ways,
and scientists have to scratch their heads when they try to explain
some of these unusual phenomena.
In June 1996 a sphere of light the size of a tennis ball flew into
a printing factory in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. A dozen workers
looked up in astonishment as the blue and white ball whizzed round
inside, spinning along girders, hitting print machinery, sending
sparks flying. Finally it hit a window and exploded with an orange
flash and a tremendous bang, knocking out the telephone switchboard.
"The whole place was lit up," said Simon Pocock, one of
the staff. "The sparks were unbelievable - it was like a horror
movie." Three people received electric shocks, one lady was
hit in the shoulder.
Thousands of people all over the world have reported seeing mysterious
glowing balls of light gliding inside their homes and even inside
aircraft. They vary in size from a golfball to a football, in a
variety of iridescent colours, with little noise, no smell and generally
disappear by hitting television sets or other electrical fittings
with a pop. In the most violent cases, glowing balls have exploded
into flames and set houses ablaze. It's a phenomenon called "ball
lightning". It usually come during thunderstorms, but no one
knows what it is except that it's an electrical freak of nature.
Ball lightning might even help explain "Foo Fighters".
In World War II many pilots reported glowing balls of light flying
alongside their aircraft. They thought it was some sort of secret
enemy weapon, but German and Allied pilots both experienced the
same phenomenon. To this day the lights remain a complete mystery.
We know that thunderstorms can put on some other very weird light
displays. In olden days mariners often saw the tops of their ship
masts glow as thunderstorms developed. They called it "St Elmo's
fire", and its eerie light comes from the intense static electricity
streaming up tall objects and discharging as a glowing corona. One
of the most fantastic displays in recent times was in 1976 when
many of the players at a school football match in Dover, England
found their heads glowing and understandably abandoned their game!
In itself St Elmo's isn't dangerous but it often appears just before
a lightning strike, so if you do experience it, it might be wise
to get out of the area as soon as possible.
One overcast day in 1939 a thunderstorm broke out in Trowbidge
in Wiltshire, but this was no ordinary shower. As the heavens opened
up, people at the town's open air swimming pool were astonished
to see hundreds of small frogs falling down from the sky. "It
was a job to walk on the path without treading on them", according
to one woman reported in The Times.
cats and dogs?...
Over the years all sorts of animals and plants have showered down
during thunderstorms, possibly sucked up from rivers and lakes by
tornadoes (or their watery equivalents - waterspouts) into thunderclouds
and then dumped miles away in heavy rain. Another sort of shower
of wildlife might be easier to explain. Dozens of dead birds have
occasionally been seen plummeting out of the sky, sometimes partly
frozen. These poor animals were probably swept up high in the powerful
updrafts of a thundercloud, then frozen like hailstones before gravity
took over.Giant pieces of ice have also been reported crashing to
earth, and these are often blamed on ice falling from aircraft.
But the largest recorded ice fall was 20 feet long and fell on Scotland
in 1849 - long before aircraft were invented! They might be hailstones
which have somehow joined into a massive lump of ice but nobody
But most common of all are rains of blood which have been reported
all over the world ever since biblical times. An important clue
to their cause came in July 1968 in southern England, when a shower
coated everything in red gritty dust. It was fine sand blown up
from the Sahara and carried over a thousand miles inside a massive
high pressure systems before falling in a rainshower.
Weird Sights in the Sky
An almost clear blue sky can put on some remarkable displays of
magic - and can even help change the course of history. In 1461
Edward IV was about to fight a Lancastrian force at Mortimer's Cross
in Herefordshire when his army saw a fantastic vision - three suns
were lined up in a row in the sky. His men panicked but Edward took
the sight as a good omen and rallied the troops to victory.
Victory? Sundogs on either side of the real sun
What they had seen were 'sundogs', created by microscopic ice crystals
in high wispy cirrus clouds, bending sunlight like glass prisms
so that a pair of 'ghost' images of the sun appeared alongside the
real sun. It's more common than you'd think - watch out for a veil
of cirrus cloud over the sun on a bright day. Small wonder that
these sorts of optical phenomena can easily be taken as religious
signs. One memorable case was the tragic mountaineering expedition
led by Edward Whymper on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.
They mountaineers reached the peak but on their descent tragedy
struck when four of the men fell down a precipice to their deaths.
Later that evening Whymper saw an amazing vision: a circle of light
with three crosses in the sky. "The ghostly apparitions of
light hung motionless; it was a strange and awesome sight, unique
to me and indescribably imposing at such a moment." Whymper
had seen sunlight split by a veil of thin cloud into a large bow,
part of a horizontal circle with vertical pillars of light crossing
it. A similar sort of horizontal band can also be seen when you
look at a light through a window smeared with grease in one direction
or reflected by finely ribbed glass; the band of light is always
seen at right angles to the ripples. Mountaineers also see ghosts!
Huge shadowy spectres called Brocken Spectres, after the Brocken
peak in Germany, are created by the shadows of mountaineers projected
onto low clouds and reflected back by the tiny water droplets in
the mist. Probably the commonest light show in the sky are mirages.
They can bend light over the horizon so that people as far as Hastings
have clearly seen the French coast across the English Channel, and
sailors in Dublin Bay have claimed to see Mount Snowdon a 100 miles
of ice towers in Antarctica
These mirages are created by calm, warm air sitting on top of cold
air - a temperature inversion - bending light from over the horizon
like a glass prism, creating amazing images and revealing places
hidden over the horizon. On rare occasions a temperature inversion
turns into an even weirder light show. In 1957 passengers on the
cruiser Edinburgh Castle sailing up the English Channel saw a line
of ships upside down on the horizon - but they were upside down,
some on top of each other, funnel to funnel and elongated. The images
were ships projected from below the skyline. With this sort of optical
trickery it's not surprising that mirages can explain quite a few
UFO sightings. Long before flying saucers were ever heard of, sailors
reported seeing ships sailing in the sky. This might explain the
legend of the Flying Dutchman, a ghostly ship that haunted the seas
around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope in stormy weather, luring
ships to their destruction.
Another remarkable example of a weird mirage appeared over Edinburgh
in 1986, when two eyewitnesses saw what looked like a cigar-shaped
UFO flying close by. The only known aircraft at the time was a Boeing
757 landing at nearby Edinburgh's Logan Airport - the 'alien craft'
was probably an upside down mirage of the aircraft alongside the
normal image, creating the appearance of a flying cylinder.
Weird Colours in the Sky
"Once in a blue moon" goes the saying, and it's a rare
thing indeed, but the moon really can change blue. It happened in
1950, when a massive forest fire raging in Alberta, Canada, poured
gigantic clouds of fine, sooty droplets that weeks later reached
Europe, 4 miles high in the sky. These droplets were just the right
size to scatter moonlight and make the moon appear blue. Probably
the most fantastic coloured moons - and suns - were seen all over
the world following the eruption of Krakatau in 1883. Tremendous
quantities of extremely fine volcanic dust were shot up into the
upper atmosphere and stayed afloat for years, creating stupendous
sunrises and sunsets as the dust scattered red light strongly when
the sun was low in the sky. The dust from Krakatoa also created
beautiful rings of blue, brown and white around the sun and moon.
This stunning phenomenon might explain a later sighting in 1917,
when three children claimed they saw the Virgin Mary in the sky
near the village of Fatima in Portugal. Their vision eventually
attracted 100,000 pilgrims who watched in amazement as veils of
silver, blue and yellow played in ethereal dances over the sun.
But it was probably caused by a volcanic eruption in Costa Rica
in Central America.
Whirlwinds and Vortices
The Loch Ness Monster and his other cousins dotted around deep
lakes all over the world might be explained by an interesting sort
of weather. They could be all mistaken for water devils - small
whirlwinds forming over warm waters. They spin up a funnel of water
which darts around and looks just like the neck and a head of a
dinosaur, often pausing 'for breath', and sometimes hissing and
bubbling like a frantic animal. No wonder eyewitnesses have been
often been scared witless as they've faced one of these 'beasts'
of the water.
The same goes for much larger waterspouts over the sea. These are
huge vortices of seawater spiralling up into stormy clouds above,
and you can see why ancient mariners talked about monsters from
the deep. Who knows, they might even explain the mystery of the
Marie Celeste's vanished crew, perhaps so terrified by the sight
of a sea monster they jumped overboard.
in the Bahamas
Today, we're more intrigued by crop circles and although most of
these are clearly hoaxes, some may be caused by freak weather. One
theory is that small, gently spinning vortices can form in the lee
of hills and it's quite possible that when they break down they
could make flatten crops into circles, particularly on sloping fields.
In fact, old woodcuts show crop circles formed by the devil, so
these aren't a modern phenomenon by any means.
Seriously Weird Weather
In short, the weather is a lot more weird than we give it credit
for. And if we took these fabulous displays more seriously we might
get a deeper insight into many other mysteries of the world.
Paul Simons is a science writer, broadcaster and television
producer. His book 'Weird Weather' is now in paperback (Warner Books).
If you live in fear of those blue and white
balls you can get some life
insurance quotes here. Or else for more information on the weather
try TORRO - the Tornado Research