Saint Elmo’s Fire

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As the worst of a thunderstorm at sea passes, seen aglow atop the masts is a blue and violet ball of fire, seen as a good omen amongst sailors.  Saint Elmo’s fire.

Saint Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, was said to have died during a storm at sea.  Before he passed, he promised his crew that he would return in some form if they were to survive the brawl.  Shortly after he passed, the crew looked up and saw the top of the mast glowing with what appeared to be a ball of fire, and they took this as Elmo, or Erasmus, keeping his word.

This ball of light quickly became known as a good omen, and soon earned itself the title of Saint Elmo’s Fire, and when sailors saw it they knew that it would be able to make it out of the storm alive, as long as it stayed atop on the masts.  If the fire made it to the deck it was certain bad luck, and if it ringed a man’s hand, he was destined to die.

Have people actually seen it?
Saint Elmo’s Fire has fascinated people for thousands of years.  There are accounts of it many times in ancient Greece, including works by Julius Ceasar.  Magellan’s voyage also had record of Saint Elmo’s fire.  Other people to note that witnessed the amazing blue fire are Charles Darwin and Nikola Tesla, when testing his Tesla coil in Colorado Springs.

But what is it?
Saint Elmo’s Fire is scientifically a bright blue or violet plasma, often fire-like in appearance, that occurs in the electronic field around an object (usually a lightening rod, or mast) causing the ionization of air molecules.  This allows for a faint glow to surround the mast, hand, deck (in some cases even the horns of a bull!) that is easily visible in little light. The reason it has such an interesting color? The same reason that neon lights glow, the natural nitrogen and oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere allow it to fluoresce.

 

Liked this?  Stay tuned for more of Captain John’s Nautical Nonsense!

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