Which Of These Weather Phenomena Are Known As “St. Elmo’s Fire”?
Answer: Coronal Discharges
While there are plenty of boring, everyday atmospheric phenomena like run-of-the-mill rain storms and ordinary lightning, there are a handful of phenomena that are truly awe-inspiring and, in many cases, believed to be divine in origin by various peoples in the past.
Among such awe-inspiring events and witnesses is the phenomenon of “St. Elmo’s Fire” and sailors. The phenomenon itself occurs when a pointed object is placed into a strong electrical field in the atmosphere such as the top of a ship’s masts and yard arms during a thunderstorm. A coronal discharge of energy forms around the elevated points and the energy collects and discharges in the form of a luminous plasma that has a bright blue or violet glow.
When sailors saw the glow at the top of the masts and yard arms of their ships (and they survived the storms to tell the tale), they attributed the glow to the presence of St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, and his divine presence protecting them on their voyages. The coronal discharge and the plasma became known as “St. Elmo’s Fire” as a result and the phenomenon (even when not found at sea) is referred to by that name to this day.
While the name is steeped in the tradition of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and the European sailors familiar with them, we could just as easily have an alternative name for the phenomenon. Sailors from cultures around the world have encountered the glow and all, universally, treated it like a divine omen. Chinese sailors said the glow was a divine omen of Tianfei, the goddess of sailors and seafarers. The Greeks called a single appearance of the glow Helene and a pair of them Kastor and Polydeuces (Helen’s mythological twin brothers). Portuguese sailors called the glow the “holy body”. So had another superstition or tradition taken hold instead, we could be calling the glow “Helen’s Touch”, “Tianfei’s Blessing”, or another phrase instead of “St. Elmo’s Fire”.
Image courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library/Flickr.