What do you get when you cross a frozen lake in Wisconsin with an electrically charged atmosphere and a raised human hand?
Based on this unusual video, filmed on Wisconsin’s Lake Monona, if the conditions are just right, you get St. Elmo’s Fire. Not to be confused with the 1980s coming-of-age film, St. Elmo’s Fire is an eerie electrical phenomenon that’s often confused for lightning.
It may be akin to lighting, in that both are caused by ionized air (plasma), but whereas lightning results from electricity transmitting from a charged cloud to the ground, St. Elmo’s Fire is a carona discharge, caused by molecules tearing apart and shooting electrons into the surrounding air like sparklers on Canada Day, causing a blue glow and an electrical hissing noise.
Many explorers, including Columbus and Magellan, encountered and wrote about the strange blue flames they saw dancing atop their ships’ masts during thunderstorms. The name even comes from a mispronunciation of St. Erasmus, the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors.
And while the phenomenon isn’t entirely rare, it’s incredibly unusual to see St. Elmo’s fire dancing on the tips of human fingers. In fact, this may be the only video that shows true, spontaneous St. Elmo’s Fire outside of artificial lab conditions. This may be because, in the absence of any masts or telephone poles, the hands shown here are the highest objects on the flat frozen lake.
Though you might never encounter St. Elmo’s Fire, should you ever find the tips of your fingers glowing when you’re outside in stormy conditions, take cover or get indoors, as lightning may very well be on its way!