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Explaining St. Elmo's fire


An illustration depicting St. Elmo's Fire on the masts of a ship **
An illustration depicting St. Elmo's Fire on the masts of a ship **

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

July 22, 2012 — Thunderstorms are firing up across the country -- and if you happen to look out your window at just the right time, you might catch a glimpse of a weather phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire.

The phenomenon usually occurs during a thunderstorm (courtesy: Jeff Wizniak)
The phenomenon usually occurs during a thunderstorm (courtesy: Jeff Wizniak)

Some see it as a bad omen.

Others have linked it to the supernatural -- and some may recall the popular 1980s film that bears the same name.

But St. Elmo's fire - the weather phenomenon at least - has nothing to do with goblins or Hollywood actors.

This unique event is best spotted during a thunderstorm -- and with severe weather firing up across the country, now is your chance to try and spot it (from inside the safe confines of your home, of course).

While St. Elmo's fire resembles fire or a ball of lightning, it's actually something quite different.

When there's significant imbalance in an electrical charge, the molecules pull apart.

The end result is a coronal discharge, usually bright blue or violet, that resembles a flame -- but with a few distinct characteristics. Unlike fire, this particular phenomenon doesn't burn, and it can't be doused by water. It's usually accompanied by a subtle hissing noise.

You're most likely to spot St. Elmo's fire at the top of lightning rods, chimneys, and air plane wings. Closer to the ground, you'll see it on leaves and grass.

Though generally not dangerous, it has been known to interfere with compass readings.

** Illustration courtesy of Dr. G. Hartwick via the United States public domain

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