July 3, 2011 3:44 PM   Subscribe

What did I see during a crazy thunderstorm last night?

Last night around 9pm, a rather intense thunderstorm rolled in: nonstop lightning, though there wasn't that much rain. At one point, lightning struck, and the whole sky lit up in a brilliant shade of green, for maybe 1 or 2 seconds-- just long enough to be sure I wasn't imagining it. This was accompanied by a deep, unholy buzzing which lasted a few seconds. The power went out, then came back on maybe three or four minutes later. About ten minutes after the first time, it happened again and that time the power was out for a few hours.

I should probably note that the power goes out in my building at the slightest hint of a storm, so that may not be relevant. Also, I am in Guelph, Ontario, which is about an hour and a half away from Toronto.

I have never experienced anything like this! It was actually kind of terrifying, it reminded me of a scene in some kind of alien abduction movie. What could have caused the sky to light up green like that? And what was the buzzing?
posted by torisaur to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Auroroa Borealis?
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:50 PM on July 3, 2011

The buzzing makes me think of St. Elmo's fire, but I've never heard of it lighting up the entire sky.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:51 PM on July 3, 2011

You can probably rest easy. If green thunderstorms have made it to USA Today, they can't be too exciting.
posted by COD at 3:52 PM on July 3, 2011

Could've been a cloud-ionosphere discharge (aka Sprite)
posted by gimli at 3:57 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: Blown transformer?
posted by sanka at 3:58 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I saw something similar while driving during a thunderstorm last year, and returned home to find the power out. I think it was a piece of power equipment (transformer?) either getting struck by lightning or blowing out due to the storm.
posted by Adridne at 3:59 PM on July 3, 2011

On second thought, I'll retract. C-I discharges are usually only seen from the ground if the storm is far away, and the color tends to be red.
posted by gimli at 4:08 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: It was a transformer blowing. Might have been many blocks away - the sound carries strangely, especially in wind and rain.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:08 PM on July 3, 2011

Almost certainly the blue white of the electrical arcing reflecting being 'turned green' by hail.
posted by wierdo at 4:17 PM on July 3, 2011

I've seen this too, although to me, it looked blue. This article claims that that's a bolt that went upward, rather than down to the ground.
posted by Gilbert at 4:22 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: Definitely a transformer being hit. I've seen the same thing several times before, once directly across the street from my house. The blue/green light and buzzing sound are pretty disturbing.
posted by knave at 4:26 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: Definitely a blown transformer.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:27 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: This video captures the sound pretty well.
posted by knave at 4:28 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: Nthing transformer blowing. Back in the winter, we were without power for two days. At one point, it came back on, followed immediately by that deep, long buzzing sound -- and the power went right back out (which sucked, man). The power company had been out repairing something at a transformer about half a mile away when it got overloaded again and blew. I'll never forget that sound -- it woke me out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night.

Oh, and the green sky was probably just lightning in the clouds, enough to light up the whole sky.
posted by devinemissk at 5:04 PM on July 3, 2011

Best answer: I was assuming a blown transformer as well. Dramatic, but surprisingly standard.
posted by carlh at 5:09 PM on July 3, 2011

Response by poster: Looks like it was a transformer blowing. It was mighty startling! Especially coupled with the violent storm. Thanks, all, it was driving me nuts :)
posted by torisaur at 5:27 PM on July 3, 2011

I guess it was an unusual manifestation of the airglow:

The brightest emission is green 558nm light from oxygen atoms in a layer 90-100 km high. The emission layer is clearly visible from earth orbit.

The excited atoms take about a second to decay to another lower energy excited state***. By atomic emission standards this is extremely slow and in that time many excited atoms lose their energy instead by collisions, mainly with nitrogen molecules. The emission does not occur at lower altitude because the collisional quenching is so severe, the extreme UV sunlight is less intense and there are fewer oxygen atoms

For this light to result from a lightning strike, I think the mechanism would be something like the first or first few bolts of a strike dissociating the oxygen molecules into atoms and producing a heated, rarefied zone next to the channel where oxygen atoms could persist for a while, and where collisional quenching wouldn't be too bad, and then UV light from subsequent bolts exciting the oxygen atoms, which then proceeded to glow green.

When I was a kid the small city where I lived (Colorado Springs) had a hundred year storm in which clouds backed up from the east against the mountains, and we had three solid days (as I recall) of intense thunder and lightning, along with torrential rain. I spent several hours each of two nights on our west-facing front porch watching the greatest-- by far-- light show I have ever experienced.

There was blue, pink, yellow, white, purple and green lightning. Green was rarest, but it was definitely there, and it was a strong green.
posted by jamjam at 6:01 PM on July 3, 2011

That sounds very similar to what I experienced in 2002 or 2003... driving home from work, the whole sky lit up bright as day for just a couple of seconds. Once I figured out it wasn't the second coming (okay I was just out of a bad Christian experience back then), I was terrified that Chicago had been nuked, because it was not long after 9/11. It turned out to have been a meteor. Scared me half to death, it did.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:34 PM on July 3, 2011

Good question, thanks for the answers, because in 1975 when I was 21 I still remember the green flash during a violent night-time thunderstorm in Nags Head, North Carolina.
posted by Rash at 9:20 AM on July 4, 2011

Most likely a transformer blowing up, the copper may have ionized and that's what turned it green.

Or it was just other lightning illuminating a green sky, caused by the storm.

I was driving past a downed power line one time, and it was still energized. It made the unholy buzzing sound you speak of. It was as if the entire sound spectrum was buzzing simultaneously, and was somehow directionless.

Finally, I have heard similar unholy buzzing directly *preceding* a lightning strike.
posted by gjc at 10:19 AM on July 4, 2011

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