Driving down the street, it’s kind of difficult to miss the large red, orange, and white spheres on the telephone lines. They’re perfectly spaced, look like giant bouncy balls, and seemingly have no purpose but to be the landing station of tired birds.
Well, contrary to popular belief, those balls actually have a purpose, and it’s not to look like buoys that made their way out of the water and onto a power line. In fact, the actual use of these balls is quite remarkable.
They First Popped Up In Either The 50s or 70s
The age-old argument of where the giant red balls, aka visibility markers, first popped up is up for debate. And while it is as interesting a debate as any, people tend to agree they first showed up either in 1950s Florida and Arkansas or solely 1970s Arkansas.
Either way, they showed up, and they were there to stay, eventually making their rounds and appearing all across the United States. But the question remains, what is the purpose of the balls?
Large Spheres Are A minimum Of 36 Inches In Diameter
Driving down the street, seeing the red spheres might take some concentration, as they are suspended on power lines hundreds of feet in the air. And while they might look tiny from inside a car or on the ground, in all actuality, they’re pretty big.
Some of these spheres measure to be a bare minimum of 36 inches in diameter and a weight of 17 pounds. That’s pretty big for something that is threaded through a highly powerful line.
Smaller Spheres Are 20 Inches In Diameter
The thing is, the spheres that are suspended hundreds of feet in the air aren’t the only ones on the power lines. In fact, there are multiple balls found closer to the ground, about 50 feet up.
These particular spheres aren’t as big as the others, measuring about 20 inches in diameter instead of 36 inches. And they are also spaced way closer together, around 30 feet apart. That’s way less than the larger balls 200 feet.
Electricity Plays A Role
As both the smaller and larger spheres are all perfectly placed on the power lines, it’s obvious they are there for a specific reason. But what is that reason exactly? Someone didn’t randomly decide to put what looks like a giant bouncy ball on the United States’ power lines.
So, what is the meaning behind them? Ironically, the answer has something to do with the lines and what those lines carry. Electricity.
Two Engineers Revolutionized Long-Distance Electricity
That’s right; the spheres have something to do with the electricity running through the lines. And while the concept of universal, long-distance electricity isn’t new to the modern-day, it is actually a fairly recent development.
In 1882, engineers Oskar von Miller and Marcel Deprez were the first to figure out a way to transport electricity over long distances. Transmitting current and signals over a 35-mile stretch using a 2.5-kilowatt current was revolutionary!
Power Plants Needed A Way To Service Far-Away Towns
As time went on, power plants expanded from their small-town locations to more remote areas. This meant the companies needed to figure out a way to transport electricity further than ever before since they were used to being virtually right next to the homes and offices they serviced.
It took some time, but, eventually, something was proposed and invented. That something continues to serve families, companies, and various facilities around the United States today. The power line.
Transmitting Electric Without Losing Money Was Key
Since power plants were moving to more remote locations, figuring out a way to service their consumers was a high priority. That’s where the power line came into play. It was a way for the plants to generate electricity and transmit it over long distances.
It was genius! The plants weren’t going to have to worry about losing customers and, therefore, revenue, because they weren’t able to transport the necessary electricity to the homes, offices, and facilities in need of power.
They Might Be Helpful, But They’re Also Dangerous
Plants didn’t have to worry about potentially losing revenue, as they could send high-voltage electricity over long-distances. But just because they found a way to transport the electricity doesn’t mean it’s 100% foolproof and safe.
In fact, a majority of suspended lines aren’t insulated, unlike underground lines, allowing for various accidents to occur, such as electrocutions and fires. Being a construction worker or electrician working on those lines is no easy or small task!
The Worker Acts As A Transmitter, Of Sorts
These electrocutions can occur when a worker is standing on the ground and accidentally touches a piece of equipment to the exposed cables. The worker acts as a kind of conductor, passing from the cable, through the equipment and person, and back into the earth.
Needless to say, it’s not a shock most people want to experience in their lifetime. But it also explains a few different things, such as why birds are able to perch on exposed power lines.
Birds Aren’t Transmitting Power Back Into The Ground
While a person acts as a pseudo-conductor for power to travel back into the earth, that doesn’t happen with birds for a very specific reason. The reason being birds are perched on the wires and aren’t touching the ground.
Only when the power has a way to be transmitted into the ground does the person, or animal, get a startling shock. Of course, birds do have to be careful not to brush the lines together, or else they’re pretty much toast.
Shoes Also Make Their Way Onto Cable Lines
Something else that finds its way onto power lines is the occasional shoes. Tied together by the laces, shoes strung up on power lines have many different meanings, such as urban crime, particularly different gang boundaries.
And while these cable decorations aren’t exactly put up by the state or any power line worker, there are many that are. And, don’t worry, the many things strung up by office workers actually have a particular purpose.
Insulators Help Live Wires Stay On Track
One such contraption installed onto power lines by workers are things called insulators, tiny glass disks. Coming in many colors, these disks do the same thing. These insulators prevent live wires from shocking anything by separating the wires from a transformer’s edge (the big metal box on the power line).
See, if the lines went through the transformer, they’d have a direct line to the ground. And electricity going into the ground doesn’t exactly help power plants, ergo the insulator installation.
Insulators Protect Cables During Lightning Storms
The disk-shaped insulators also help power plants by protecting transformers during major storms, especially lightning. The insulators protect the transformer from any major surge that would happen if a bolt would strike a power line.
Interestingly, these disks aren’t located everywhere. So, a lot of people might have no idea what they’re looking at if they so happened to stumble upon one on a power line. Instead, they’re used to seeing something else on the cables, something a little less disk-like.
No One Really Knows What They Spheres Are Used For
Instead of seeing glass disks floating on cable lines, a lot of people are used to seeing big, what looks like plastic, spheres on the lines. More often than not, they go about their day not knowing, or really caring, what the balls are used for in their day to day life.
They could solely be decorative, for all the general public knows! The thing is, like the insulators, they do serve a purpose.
They Get Closer Together The Closer They Are To An Airport
Depending on how high off the ground the ball is, they tend to be spaced about 200-feet from one another on the power lines, getting closer to each other the closer they are to an airport.
While that’s not a straight answer, it should give a little clue into what these balls are actually used for. But the concrete answer is coming up later. For now, there’s more information to learn!
Affixing The Balls Is No Easy Task
Some of the balls are affixed to the power lines in a not-so-safe manner, something a lot of people don’t think about. Contrary to popular belief, though, the balls don’t miraculously appear overnight.
Instead, workers go through dangerous obstacles to get the balls onto the lines, such as being helicoptered in, jumping to the cable lines, and installing the ball while their “getaway copter” hovers close by. Talk about a job that isn’t for the faint of heart!
After A Flight, Winthrop Rockefeller Came Up With An Idea
And while the installation of these balls has progressed over the years, their use and purpose never strayed. In fact, it was Winthrop Rockefeller who first proposed installing the spheres.
Apparently, while Rockefeller was traveling in a plane, he looked out the window only to see cable lines very close to the bottom of the aircraft. So, he did what any sane person would do. He came up with a proposal and changed aviation safety forever!
The Spheres Are To Warn Pilots Away From Power Lines
Rockefeller proposed putting something on the cable lines to help pilots safely fly guide their planes to airport runways. And so, the brightly-colored spheres began appearing! They were a warning for pilots to stay away from the power cables that were getting closer and closer to the plane as it lowered itself down to the runway.
It was brilliant! The unfortunate thing, though, was that the spheres weren’t installed country-wide. So, many pilots were still playing a risky game that caused more than one accident.
Colorado Didn’t Install The Spheres Fast Enough
For a long time, only certain states had the ingenious spheres as a warning symbol to pilots. Other states weren’t so lucky. And in more than one instance, the lack of warning cause horrific accidents, such as a helicopter crash in Colorado.
In the 1980s, Colorado began installing the spheres, hopping on board with the aviation safety measure. Unfortunately, the installation of the spheres didn’t come quickly enough, and there was a horrible accident over the South Platte River.
Without The Warning, A Pilot Collided With The Thin Lines
The state did its best to affix the colored spheres to cable lines. They just didn’t do it fast enough. And in 1988, a horrible accident happened. That year, a news helicopter collided with a cable line suspended about 150-feet over the South Platte River.
The cable didn’t have a sphere in place to warn the pilot. It resulted in the helicopter colliding with the thin cable line in a fatal crash above the river.
The FAA Can’t Make Country-Wide Spheres Mandatory
Even so, that horrible accident and many more doesn’t change the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can’t legally make the colored spheres a mandatory addition to state power lines.
The best the FAA can do is educate and promote the warning spheres as much as possible, advocating for them as a necessary safety precaution for both the people in any aircraft as well as those underneath live power lines.
There Are Many Reasons Accidents Occur
Even with all of the accidents that occur, a majority being helicopters, the FAA has no legal ground to stand on to make the colored spheres a country-wide safety regulation. There are even news stations, like the FAAviation News report in 2003, that explains the many reasons accidents occur.
During the report, the station said helicopter accidents happen because of “dirty windscreens, light conditions [and] the obscuring effects of terrain and changes in visual perspective that occur during climb and descent.”
Power Lines Change With The Seasons And With Time
Unfortunately, even with a report stating all of the ways an aircraft can wind up colliding with live power lines isn’t enough for it to be a country-wide ordinance. The report even stated that “accurately judging the helicopter’s distance from unmarked wires is nearly impossible.”
With the changing seasons and time, the power lines are changing shape and color each and every day. Having something, such as a colored sphere, is a way to ensure pilots are as safe as possible.
The Visibility Markers Are To Help Gauge Distance
Think of the sphere like a red flag someone puts on an object protruding from their trunk. The ball is a way to gauge the amount of room between the live wire and the aircraft, just like the flag.
And while they aren’t a mandatory safety precaution, there are certain areas in the country where you’d be hard-pressed not to find the colored spheres. And each of the locations makes total sense, as they’re areas where planes and helicopters tend to fly a bit lower.
They Help Aircraft Stay Safe
Spheres tend to be located near airports, especially those near canyons, valleys, and mountain passes that lead up to a runway. This is because aircraft tend to fly a bit lower in these areas than, say, over a highway where cars can gauge a safe distance.
The balls are installed in these specific locations, so pilots have a set marker telling them when and where they should expect a power line.
Visibility Markers Run From 20-36 Inches In Diameter
And while the spheres themselves are a safety measure, there is a reason why they come in various colors as well as sizes. According to The FAA guidelines, balls located over lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water have to be a bit on the larger side, around 36 inches in diameter.
On the other side of the coin, markers located closer to an airport or suspended less than 50-feet above the ground are going to be smaller, about 20 inches in diameter.
Bright Colors Help Them Stand Out
While the spheres are of various sizes, depending on where they are located, they all have one thing in common; they’re brightly colored. Either a bright red, orange, or yellow, the color is distinctly different from the surrounding area.
To put it simply, the colors are so bright so they don’t blend in with the sky, trees, or anything else that might camouflage it into the background, defeating the purpose of a safety symbol.
Being “In Your Face” Is The Point
At the end of the day, the color is dependent on the surroundings. But as a general rule, the brighter and more “in the pilot’s face,” the better. In most cases, it’s going to be red or orange, the exact opposite color of the blue sky and green grown.
The color will be whatever is going to stand out, keeping the aircraft, pilot, and all of the passengers as safe as possible.
Patterns Help Pilots Spot The Wires
That being said, it also depends on how many balls are affixed to a single wire. If there are as few as four spheres, the color will most likely be the same throughout, typically a nice orange.
But if there are more than four, a colored pattern is typically a better option. Something eye-grabbing so the pilot knows there is about to be a large abundance of wires close by, and they should keep an eye out.
The Balls Help Save Lives
Plan and helicopter pilots aren’t the only ones who benefit from the spheres. In 1983, United Press International reported that the brightly colored balls were also steering geese away from the live wires.
Not only that, boat captains have come to look for the balls, not wanting to drive their vessels too close to an area where there are live wires. So, what do these big colored balls do? They help save lives.
An Unbelievable Sight
Lake Berryessa is the largest lake in Napa County, California. Local resident David Burgman was visiting the lake and using his drone when he made the most amazing accidental discovery.
Equipped with a camera on his drone, Burgman flew it over the lake when he saw something he couldn’t believe. In the middle of the lake was a hole that was slowly sucking in water. Where did this hole come from? What was it doing there?
A Swirling Vortex Of Mystery
From high above the hole, all Burgman could see was just that; a hole. It was clearly out of place and highly unusual. A curious man by nature, he couldn’t just leave this discovery alone.
Being so far up in the air, it was hard to see exactly what was going on. Burgman could tell the hole was creating a swirling vortex, but he had no idea why. He needed to get closer and nothing was going to stop him.
Coming In For A Closer Look
David moved his drone in for a closer look, unsure what to expect. As the drone approached the hole, the sheer size of it was jaw-dropping. Its power was an entirely different story.
Burgman couldn’t believe it as his drone started getting sucked into the swirling vortex below. The hole was strong, and didn’t seem to be taking kindly to its new visitor, “When I lowered the drone into the ‘Glory Hole,’ it became unstable and almost crashed into the side.”
Is The Reason More Logical Than We Thought?
Upon looking at the footage of the incredibly strong hole that was slowly pulling David Burgman’s drone into the abyss, it appeared that it could be a drainage system. Lake Berryessa is able to hold as much as 521 billion gallons of water.
When the lake reaches its maximum capacity, all that water has to go somewhere. Is this mysterious hole a way to keep the lake from overflowing? Also, what fate was ahead for Burgman’s drone as it fought a seemingly hopeless battle with gravity?
California’s Drought May Have Played A Part
California is almost always in a drought. The state is desperate for rain, and the last few years of minimal precipitation have only made things worse. By 2016, Lake Berryessa was only half full!
If that’s true, then another question must be answered; why was the lake suddenly bursting with water? Where was Lake Berryessa getting its water from? As David fought to keep control of his drone, we doubt these questions entered his mind. But we can’t help but wonder to ourselves what was going on!
A Miracle From The Clouds
Maybe someone did a rain dance, or maybe it was a miracle, but it in early 2017 Northern California was hit with tons of rainfall. The rain that fell from the heavens was so much that it filled the lake.
Of course, it didn’t just fill the lake, it caused it to overflow. As the lake filled over it’s capacity, the hole began to take shape. It turned out the simple answer was the correct answer, it was drainage. How did it work, though?
A Gateway To Another Dimension?
Many people believe these holes, which occur in lakes around the world, are gateways to different dimensions. But in this case, it’s actually a drainage system was built underneath the lake near the Monticello Dam.
The vortex created is only dangerous if you get too close. It’s even more dangerous for drones, which can lose control against the suction power very easily. David Burgman was lucky to wrestle back control of his drone from the hole. Others who discovered the mystery through the same means weren’t as lucky!
How It Works
The way these drainage holes work is simple. When the lake reaches beyond its maximum capacity, a catalyst effect kicks into action. A huge hole opens up and acts like a plug. And the water begins draining. In the case of Lake Berryessa, so much water draining at once creates incredible force.
Now that you know these swirling holes aren’t supernatural occurrences, we suggest not getting too close. Drones aren’t cheap, and you won’t get a refund for having yours destroyed because you were too curious.
Just How Much Water Is Displaced?
At Lake Berryessa, an incredible amount of water is moved through the sinkhole at a mind-blowing rate. Over two million gallons of water are flushed through the hole every minute! For even more context, imagine you’re looking at four Olympic sized swimming pools.
Now imagine all that water swirling itself together and creating a giant vortex. In the blink of an eye, the vortex disappears as all the water drains away to somewhere else. That’s just how incredible these sinkholes are!
A Surprise Tourist Attraction
When David Burgman let the world know about his strange discovery, Lake Berryessa was swarmed with curious tourists. If we knew what was happening at the time we would have made the trip ourselves!
With so many new people visiting the area desperate to see the sinkhole a new problem arose. The hole was not designed to be a tourist attraction and it wasn’t a safe environment for the number of people who had shown up to witness it firsthand. There was a real chance things were about to get a whole lot worse.
A Social Network Sensation
The hole was beginning to get a lot of attention on social media attention, which drew even more people to the lake in Napa County. It was a viral sensation on Facebook and was slowly taking over other social media platforms as well.
As we said, the more widespread the news of the hole went, the more dangerous it became for people looking for a photo opportunity. Facebook wasn’t the only social media doing more damage than good, though. Once something goes viral, it creates a suction just as powerful as the sinkhole itself!
The History Of Lake Berryessa
Lake Berryessa is not a natural lake. When it was originally built, the sinkhole function was added in to help prevent over-filling. It is currently the seventh-largest man-made lake in California and was filled for the first time in the 1950s after the completion of the Monticello Dam.
The dam stands over 300 feet tall and is vital in supplying water and power to the residents of Northern California. Over 600,000 people rely on it.
The Lake Has A Tragic Past
In 1997, Emily Schwalek was the victim of a terrible accident at Monticello Dam. Walking across the structure, she lost her balance and fell over the over the edge. For the next 20 minutes, she hung on for dear life.
Tragically, Emily wasn’t able to hold on long enough for help to come. She fell and tragically passed away. This sad fact is important to know as visitors flocked to the lake to see the hole that had everyone’s attention.
Finding Beauty In The Necessary
Sinkholes, or spillways, like the one in Lake Berryessa have long been considered a necessity of engineering for man-made lakes. Without these drainage systems, the effects of over-filling could be disastrous on the surrounding area.
Thanks to drone operators like David Burgman, these spillways are now being seen not just for their necessity, but for their unique beauty, too. The vortex of water that appears out of thin air is captivating and hypnotizing all at the same time.
The Danger Of The Dam
As beautiful as the Lake Berryessa spillway is, it also serves a critical purpose for the Monticello Dam. California won’t always be in a drought, and the next time heavy rains fall, the damage done would be horrific if not for the protection Monticello provides.
If the rains are too heavy, the dam faces its own dangers as well. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the exact reason the spillway was installed so close to the wall of the dam itself.
What Happens If The Spillway Or Drainage Hole Fails?
Wondering what happens if a spillway fails? A scenario just like it happened at the Oroville Spillway. The malfunction created a tidal wave, forcing the evacuation of 200,000 people. The accident was the result of a 30-foot deep hole that developed in the spillway.
The Oroville spillway was different than the Lake Berryessa drainage hole, however. It was used as a path for surplus water to travel in case of overflow. In the instance of the Oroville Spillway, everyone’s worst fears came true.
Oroville Became National News
When word of the Oroville disaster hit the airwaves, it became national news. People were glued to their television as hundreds of thousands of Californians were forced to evacuate as quickly as possible.
The Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States and serves a crucial service to anyone living in the Sacramento area. When workers discovered severe damage to the spillways, they knew right away it was a critical issue that could not be taken lightly.
Fast Rising Water
Because the hole was discovered on Oroville’s main spillway, when water flooded the area it rose at an extremely fast rate. Amazingly, this was the first time an accident like this had ever happened.
But since this had never happened before, there was no emergency plan in place. That might seem like poor planning from the beginning, but spillways are usually heavily maintained. There may not have been an emergency plan before, but there was no time like the present to come up with one.
A Bad Situation Only Got Worse
As the situation continued in Oroville, everything began to snowball as the dam workers set out to repair it. Once the spillway damage was discovered, they found that it had suffered from damage due to erosion, too. Instead of things getting better, they were somehow getting worse.
Without the erosion damage, the situation probably could have been contained without a county-wide evacuation. But with the damage to the spillway being so bad, there was no hope to keep people in their homes. Officials in the area described the scene as “manic.”
A Return To Monticello
Now that you know the dangers associated with spillway damage, let’s return to Lake Berryessa where our story began. David Burgman’s footage had gone viral, and hundreds of drone operators had flocked to the area.
Kevin King, the operations manager for the Solano Irrigation District said, “I went up there the other day and there were about 15 drones flying around and people taking videos… It’s really dramatic to watch.” At the time of his remarks, no one was in danger and the spillway was working perfectly.
Spillways Come In All Shapes And Sizes
Spillways come in several shapes and sizes. The one at the Oroville Dam is a straight path. With this design, the over-flowed water can travel. The spillway at Monticello, on the other hand, is a giant drainage hole. The drainage hole is referred to as a ‘bellmouth.’
Amazingly, a bellmouth works exactly like a bathtub drain. If you’ve ever watched the water drain out of a bathtub, you’ve witnessed the science behind the Lake Berryessa hole on a much smaller and less powerful scale.
Disaster Caught In Action
If you’re curious about what an accident like the Oroville incident might look like, look no further than the image above. Someone uploaded this picture to Instagram showing the dam unloading tons of water down its auxiliary spillway.
Now imagine if this water was not contained to traveling in one direction. Destruction of the natural habitats around it would be devastating. This water, luckily, left the area damage-free as it flowed into the Feather River.
Praying For A Miracle
Some local people believe in the power of prayer to save their town from disaster. The person who took this picture wrote, “my family likes to visit Oroville when the towns getting evacuated just so we can drink beer by the Dam and pray it doesn’t break.”
That… doesn’t seem safe. One person in the comments, which are mostly NSFW, warned the person the dam was supposed to break within an hour. We don’t know what ended up happening, but hope everyone was okay.
Not A Job To Be Taken Lightly
Workers who were tasked with fixing the dam needed to work around the clock. The danger was real, and every second the damage wasn’t fixed was another second that could result in a home being lost or person to disappear.
These brave men and women deserve our utmost respect as they work one of the hardest jobs in the country. This is one job that must be taken seriously with a lot of attention being paid as they work quickly.
A Few Years Can Make A Big Difference
As we’ve already said, California is almost always suffering from being in a drought. The image above shows the terrible impact a few rainless years can make on the region.
Three years before this picture was taken, Lake Oroville was filled with water. With California facing a terrible drought, the lake is now almost completely empty here. Without rain, families in Butte County were forced to ration that amount of water they could use, with no end in sight.
The Rise In Water Brings Another Problem With It
Over 100,000 people were forced to evacuate shortly after the spillway broke at Oroville. During that time, the number of burglaries in the area rose exponentially. As disheartening as that is to know, it makes some sense.
During times of chaos “looters” spring into action. Authorities reported looting began to take place as soon as the evacuations were ordered. The best way to prevent looting at your house is the have the proper security measures in place.
Fixing The Dam
In this picture, you can see the work that went into repairing the Oroville Dam. The helicopters above are bringing sand and rocks into the area to complete the needed repairs. Not only did workers need materials brought in from outside of the area, but they also needed destroyed material removed from the site.
When the helicopters would give workers supplies, they would likely be reloaded with debris from the nearby hydroelectric plant. This was not a small job, and now you can see just how big it really was.
Why Evacuations Are Needed
This image is terrifying in the sheer horror is shows. Water seems harmless until its barreling down at you, tons at a time. Here is the full terror produced by the broken spillway. This is why evacuations are required when disaster strikes.
Nature can strike at any time, so you should always have a plan in place in case of an emergency. It could be a dam breaking, a wildfire, or one hundred other possibilities. No matter what might arise, make sure you’re ready for it.