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The processes governing the movement of short circuit arcs in circuit breakers are complex and variable and the detailed understanding of these processes is incomplete. This paper presents a new approach to our understanding of the short circuit arcing process by concentrating on the bulk thermal behavior and energetics of the arcing and gas flow during contact opening. It is shown how considerations of the arc power and the heating and vaporization of the contact material can be used to examine the flow of gas through the arc chamber and the erosion of contact material. Experimental data from a flexible test apparatus and arc imaging system along with measurements of pressure and arc current and voltage are used as the basis of the analysis. It is demonstrated how the air initially present in the arc chamber will be rapidly expelled from the arc chamber to leave an arc burning in the products of contact volatilization. Data on mass and volume flow rates are presented as well as estimates of the gas velocity in the contact region. These data provide information on the nature of the gas flow in the arc chamber as well as contact erosion during the arcing process. Arcing conditions of interest are short circuit faults (103-104 A) in low voltage (220-380 VAC) circuit breakers.