Pat Shingleton: "St. Elmo's Fire and Thomas Jefferson"
Elmo is derived from Erasmus and St. Elmo was a fourth-century martyr and the patron saint of sailors. St. Elmo’s fire is a harmless glow appearing on high objects such as the topmast of a ship or the wing tips of a plane. It forms when misty air ionizes around the tip of an object. Electrons in the surrounding air are attracted toward these objects such as lightning rods and chimneys and a positive charge causes the air to create a green glow. Ferdinand Magellan’s crew, weary of stormy weather, was on the verge of a mutiny during their voyage around the world. Once they experienced St. Elmo’s fire on masts and spars they believed it was a sign that they were entering calm seas. In the late 1700s, many scholars were debating whether human activities were changing the earth’s climate. Thomas Jefferson and his colleague, Harvard professor Samuel Williams, wrote; “A change in our climate is taking place…both heats and colds are much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged. When settlers enter a township their first business is to cut down trees, clear lands and sow grains.” It was their belief that the surface of the earth became warm and dry and as settlements increased, the effects are more extensive. Dr. Noah Webster believed that the clearing of lands welcomed more sun, thus the changeover from forest to field changes the heat balance. Webster’s reflections were noted by Helmut Landsberg 170 years later.
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