Scientists have observed ball lightning for the first time in nature.

Ball lightning is pretty much literally what it sounds like - a sphere of electrical light which appears in the sky during a lightning storm.

Until the 1960s it was not widely believed to really exist, though stories of the phenomenon were recorded around the world, and even blamed for some deaths.

But even as the phenomenon started to gain traction - and was eventually created in the lab, it has never been observed in nature and caught on film.

Until now, that is. Chinese researchers have published a new study in the journal Physical Review Letters in which they say they recorded ball lightning during a storm in Qinghai - and have the evidence to back it up.

Jianyong Cen, Ping Yuan, and Simin Xue used spectrographs and video cameras to record the amazing sight of a ball of lightning rising five metres above the ground, and moving 15 metres before disappearing.

The sighting appears to lend weight to a theory proposed in 1999 that when lightning hits the ground, it stores energy in silicon nanoparticles which are forced into the air by the intense heat of the strike. They are then oxidised, release their energy and glow in a ball of pure silicon vapour.

The scientist behind that theory, John Abrahamson, a chemist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, told New Scientist the video of the strike was "gold dust".

"Here’s an observation which has all the hallmarks of our theory," he told the magazine.

“I think that this is a unique observation that is probably of ball lightning, or one type of ball lightning,” added lightning specialist Martin Uman of the University of Florida. “There have been many research programs that routinely video or photograph natural and triggered lightning,” he says, “but none, as far as I am aware, has stumbled on a ball lightning.”
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  • A giant bolt of lightning strikes Indonesia's Mount Merapi in 2010. (Photos: <a href="http://api.viglink.com/api/click?format=go&key=1fd204d8792518e336580cc72b47c06b&loc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.huffingtonpost.com%2F2012%2F06%2F12%2Fvolcanoes_n_1591206.html%3Futm_hp_ref%3Dvolcano&v=1&libId=c766705b-6047-4d99-8d35-4b07bab6eba4&out=http%3A%2F%2Fnews.nationalgeographic.com%2Fnews%2F2010%2F10%2Fphotogalleries%2F101028-indonesia-volcano-mount-merapi-ash-eruption-world-pictures-photos%2F&ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.huffingtonpost.com%2Fnews%2Fvolcano&title=Volcanoes%20And%20Lightning%20Mix%20With%20Spectacular%20Results%20(PHOTOS)&txt=Photos%3A%20Merapi%20Volcano%20Ash%20Smothers%20Indonesian%20Villages.&jsonp=vglnk_jsonp_13765736532346" target="_blank">Merapi Volcano Ash Smothers Indonesian Villages</a>.) "We sometimes refer to [volcanic plumes] as dirty thunderstorms," Stephen McNutt said. But, he added, there's a lot more lightning in the ash plumes than is visible in the pictures. "That's because ash clouds are opaque."

  • It wasn't the lightning but rather the widespread ash clouds from the April 2010 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano (pictured) that eventually grounded a hundred thousand flights. Particles of rock, glass, and sand in volcanic plumes can jam jet engines, as happened in 1982 when a British Airways 747 lost all four engines over Indonesia before recovering in the nick of time. (Read more about why ash is so dangerous to airplanes.) Radio emissions from volcanic lightning might provide a tool for quickly assessing the amount of ash in a volcanic plume occurring at night or in inclement weather, when neither satellites nor ground-based observers can see exactly what is happening, according to the new volcanic-lightning research, published in the journal Eos. Other methods, such as seismometers or sound detectors, can't distinguish ash-producing eruptions from eruptions that pose no risk to air traffic, said report coauthor McNutt, a volcanologist at the University of Alaska, Fairban

  • Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupts with flash and ash in 2010. (Related pictures: "<a href="http://api.viglink.com/api/click?format=go&key=1fd204d8792518e336580cc72b47c06b&loc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.huffingtonpost.com%2F2012%2F06%2F12%2Fvolcanoes_n_1591206.html%3Futm_hp_ref%3Dvolcano&v=1&libId=c766705b-6047-4d99-8d35-4b07bab6eba4&out=http%3A%2F%2Fnews.nationalgeographic.com%2Fnews%2F2010%2F04%2Fphotogalleries%2F100415-iceland-volcanic-ash-flights%2F&ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.huffingtonpost.com%2Fnews%2Fvolcano&title=Volcanoes%20And%20Lightning%20Mix%20With%20Spectacular%20Results%20(PHOTOS)&txt=Iceland%20Volcano%20Spews%20Giant%20Ash%20Clouds%20%5BApril%202010%5D&jsonp=vglnk_jsonp_13765737237307" target="_blank">Iceland Volcano Spews Giant Ash Clouds [April 2010]</a>.") With the right instruments, McNutt said, "you can see electrical activity right at the onset of the eruption," inside the crater. These otherwise invisible lightning bolts (not pictured) are produced by the other mechanism for static-charge generation: the shattering of rocks thrust skyward in an eruption. The in-crater bolts aren't huge, but they can strike thousands of times a second, creating a nearly continuous radio signal that would instantly mark the onset of the eruption, he said.

  • Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

  • -In this June 6, 2011 file photo, lightning strikes over the Puyehue volcano, over 500 miles south of Santiago, Chile.

  • Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

  • Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

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    Anak Krakatau translates to “Child of Krakatoa”, which makes perfect sense given that the island was actually created from volcanic eruptions on the nearby island of Krakatoa. <a href="http://www.trippy.com/friends/4eb96c1ee4b0c0ec367ca006/Volcanoes/map?utm_source=HuffingtonPost&utm_medium=Slideshow&utm_content=Volcanoes&utm_campaign=Photo3map" target="_hplink">See all 40 volcanoes in map view.</a>

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    It may look beautiful but Rainier is so dangerous it’s classified as a “Decade Volcano,” a group of 16 volcanoes deemed to be among the world’s most potentially destructive. <a href="http://www.trippy.com/friends/4eb96c1ee4b0c0ec367ca006/Volcanoes/map?utm_source=HuffingtonPost&utm_medium=Slideshow&utm_content=Volcanoes&utm_campaign=Photo4map" target="_hplink">See all 40 volcanoes in map view.</a>

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    Thought to be the world’s most active volcano, Kīlauea is said to be inhabited by Pele, Hawaii’s volcano goddess. <a href="http://www.trippy.com/friends/4eb96c1ee4b0c0ec367ca006/Volcanoes/map?utm_source=HuffingtonPost&utm_medium=Slideshow&utm_content=Volcanoes&utm_campaign=Photo5map" target="_hplink">See all 40 volcanoes in map view.</a>

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    Although it is located in New Zealand, Mount Egmont, or Mount Taranaki as it’s really named, looks so much like Mt. Fuji that it was used as such in the movie, “The Last Samurai.” <a href="http://www.trippy.com/friends/4eb96c1ee4b0c0ec367ca006/Volcanoes/map?utm_source=HuffingtonPost&utm_medium=Slideshow&utm_content=Volcanoes&utm_campaign=Photo6map" target="_hplink">See all 40 volcanoes in map view.</a>

  • Volcan Arenal - Alajuela Provice, Costa Rica

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  • Mount Fuji - Japan

    If you come to Mount Fuji expecting a show, you’re probably going to be out of luck. This tranquil volcano hasn’t erupted since the 1700s. <a href="http://www.trippy.com/friends/4eb96c1ee4b0c0ec367ca006/Volcanoes.html?utm_source=HuffingtonPost&utm_medium=Slideshow&utm_content=Volcanoes&utm_campaign=Photo8" target="_hplink">See all 40 volcanoes on Trippy.</a>

  • Mount Stromboli - Stromboli Island, Italy

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  • Volcan Parinacota - Chile / Bolivia

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  • Mount Bromo - East Java, Indonesia

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  • Next: Fascinating Volcano Videos

  • Marum Volcano - Ambrym Island

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  • Eyjafjallajökull Volcano - Iceland

    Located under a glacier, Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/14/iceland-volcano-evacuatio_n_536811.html" target="_hplink">erupted</a> on April 14, 2010, producing scenic lava flows and a plume of gas-rich volcanic ash which disrupted air travel and caused regional mayhem for several weeks. Eyjafjallajökull, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Reykjavik, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/14/iceland-volcano-evacuatio_n_536811.html" target="_hplink">erupted</a> March 20 after almost 200 years of dormancy.

  • Llaima Volcano - Chile

    The Llaima volcano in southern Chile <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20080101/chile-volcano/" target="_hplink">spewed</a> lava and a thick column of ash, which rose more than 9,300 feet into the sky in January 2008. The eruption forced the emergency evacuation of some 150 people from the Conguillio National Park where the volcano is located, 400 miles south of Santiago.

  • Erta Ale Volcano - Ethiopia

    Ethiopia's Erta Ale is considered to be one of the most active volcanos containing basaltic lava, which can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/volcano-garbage-ethiopia-erta-ale_n_1625517.html?utm_hp_ref=travel&ir=Travel" target="_hplink">rise</a> to a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius, according to the <a href="http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4394130/Rubbish-dropped-in-volcano-to-find-what-would-happen-to-a-human.html" target="_hplink">Sun</a>. Active since 1906, Erta Ale, which translates to "smoking mountain" in the local language, is one of five lava lakes in the world, according to <a href="http://physicsbuzz.physicscentral.com/2010/12/erta-ale-gateway-to-hell.html" target="_hplink">Physics Central</a>.

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