How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1191

During a recent ice storm, I was standing in my front doorway before dawn and the entire southern sky turned brilliant blue-green for about five seconds or more. What caused this effect? People who missed it tell me it was just a transformer "blowing up" but I've seen one blow up on our street and there is no comparison. The light I saw virtually filled the entire horizon.
You probably saw a sustained high-voltage arc between high-tension wires and/or the ground. I would guess that the ice pulled down one of the wires or caused a tree to fall across them. While transformer explosions often involve hundreds of kilowatts of electric power being turned into light and heat, most of that light is hidden from view inside the transformer. Such an explosion can be dramatic, with some nice sparks and flashes, but it's usually not very bright. However, when a high-tension wire arcs, a significant fraction of the many megawatts of power flowing through the arc is converted directly into light. In effect, a high-pressure arc lamp forms right in the air and it looks like a camera flash that just keeps going until something stops the arc or the power is shut off. The blue-green color you saw comes from characteristics of the air and metal wires involved in the arc. As you saw, a couple of million watts of light are enough to light up the predawn sky quite effectively!

There is, however, an alternative explanation: you may have seen the "green flash" that occasionally appears just as the sun reaches the horizon at sunrise or sunset. This flash is a refraction effect in the atmosphere in which only blue-green light from the sun reaches the viewer's eyes for a second or two while the sun is just below the horizon. However, this green flash should appear in the eastern sky just before dawn, not the southern sky.


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