Thursday, March 20, 2008

from The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society


A remarkable display of electricity was witnessed at Ringstead Bay, on the Dorset Coast, on August 17th, 1876, by Mrs. and Miss Warry, of IIolwcll (?), near Sherborne. North and east of the Bay the cliffs and steep declivities of broken ground, so conspicuous in the view from the Esplanade at Weymouth, descend from the Downs as a kind of undercliff. On the western side of the Bay the cliff diminishes, ending near Ringstead Ledges. About half way down the hill the coast-guard path from Whitenose to Osmington Mill runs close by a small sandstone quarry, on the brow of the cliff where the Upper Green Sand is faulted against the Kimmeridge Clay. The clay extends from the quarry to the foot of the hill, and falls sideways rather abruptly to the beach. The grassy, treeless brink of this clay cliff, for a distance of some 200 or 300 yards from the quarry downwards, and over a width of 3 or 4 yards from the edge of the cliff, was the place where the phenomenon was observed, the height above sea-level being probably from 150 to 250 feet. It is not known how much further the display extended along the edge of the cliff up or down the hill.

The weather for some weeks had been hot and dry, and the fields were parched by the drought; but at last a change was evidently approaching. The day was dull, sunless, and very sultry: from an early hour sheet lightning had been flashing frequently in various directions, unaccompanied by thunder. Between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon the above-mentioned ladies, longing for a breeze, strolled to the edge of the cliff some distance below the quarry from a neighbouring cottage. The heat was oppressive; hardly a breath was astir, but faint puffs of sweltering air surged fitfully upwards from the ground.

Mrs. Warry’s first impression, on gaining the brink of the declivity facing the sea, was that the heat had affected her sight. Over the crest of the ground, surrounding them on all sides, and extending from a few inches above the surface to 2 or 3 feet overhead, numerous globes of light, the size of billiard balls, were moving independently and vertically up and down, sometimes within a few inches of the observers, but always eluding the grasp; now gliding slowly upwards 2 or 3 feet, and as slowly falling again, resembling in their movements snap bubbles floating in the air. The balls were all aglow, but not dazzling, with a soft, superb iridescence, rich and warm of hue, and each of variable tints, their charming colours heightening the extreme beauty of the scene. The subdued magnificence of this fascinating spectacle is described as baffling description. Their numbers were continually fluctuating; at one time thousands of them apparently enveloped the observers, and a few minutes afterwards the numbers would dwindle to perhaps as few as twenty, but soon they would be swarming again as numerous as ever. Not the slightest noise accompanied this display.

About 10 p.m. a severe thunderstorm, attended with torrents of rain, came up from the sea; and on the next day, about 5 p.m., a waterspout was seen off Whitenose. The ladies sauntered up to the quarry and down again several times along the edge of the cliff, viewing the phenomenon for upwards of an hour with vague and increasing apprehension, and returned to the cottage, leaving the display in active operation. How long it continued, and when it began, is unknown.

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