If you looked up in the sky earlier this week and thought you saw Rob Lowe’s dangly earring sketched in brilliant flashes of light, you weren’t far off.
The rare weather phenomenon is a colorful discharge of atmospheric electricity that typically occurs during a thunderstorm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aka NOAA.
An Air Force crew with the 50th Air Refueling Squadron shared a video Tuesday they captured of the sky spectacle during a partial evacuation of MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Florida, ahead of Hurricane Idalia.
“I’ve never seen it that prominent before,” Staff Sgt. Dalton Degeneffe, one of the airmen who captured the strobe-like weather episode, told Fox Weather, adding that it was safe to fly in. Capt. Kristie Ciampa, one of the other airmen who witnessed the phenomenon, said the footage was captured somewhere over Virginia.
Blue and purple streaks of “luminous plasma” were visible from the cockpit of the aircraft — though the series of stunning flashes was not exactly lightning.
“Lightning is a direct movement of electrons from a cloud to the ground...while St. Elmo’s fire is like a sparking effect, where electrons cover much less distance,” Jase Bernhardt, an associate professor and director of sustainability studies at Hofstra University, told CBS News.
When a sharp object “comes in contact with an extraordinarily high electrical field and a large number of electrons, the electrons can glow in various colors, like a neon sign, resulting in this rare phenomenon,” according to NOAA.
While it can be mesmerizing to watch, NOAA warns about seeing St. Elmo’s fire from a ship, noting that “lightning may strike the mast within five minutes after it begins to glow.”
Where did the weather anomaly get its name? Not from a college hangout prone to Halloween bar fights and coming-of-age drama. Instead, it’s derived from “St. Erasmus of Formia,” one of the patron saints of sailors, according to NOAA.
This is not the first time Air Force pilots have encountered the glorious might of St. Elmo’s fire. Earlier this year, 91st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilots experienced the phenomenon while flying through stormy weather in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
So, if you’re looking for evidence of the divine, à la Emilio Estevez as Kirby who opined “she is the only evidence of God I have seen, with the exception of the mysterious force that removes one sock from the dryer every time I do my laundry,” next time there’s a thunderstorm, you might want to look up at the sky and see if you can spot the dazzling glow of St. Elmo’s fire.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media