MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: Does a tornado (not TStorm) create electricity/lightning? If so, why?

Date: Sat Jun 27 20:19:07 1998
Posted By: William Beaty, Electrical Engineer / Physics explainer / K-6 science textbook content provider
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 894843399.Es

Hi Derek!

This topic has always fascinated me. The answer is: unknown.

Tornado electricity was a favorite topic of Dr. Bernard Vonnegut, a renowned weather physicist, recently deceased. Dr. Vonnegut didn't believe that tornados were electrical generators. Instead, he supported the hypothesis that some (or all?) tornados are a type of electric motor which is driven by the high-voltage output of the parent thunderstorm. Knowing some of the reactions of the scientific community to this idea, I can see that it is "heretical science." Whether it is true or not, it cannot be properly studied because it is thought to be crazy. In science, crazy ideas are difficult to study, since this damages the reputation of any researchers who do so. This is a very serious problem, since research funding depends on reputation, and researchers with a reputation for irrational beliefs will have a hard time surviving. In truth, most crazy ideas are a waste of time. Unfortunately, some crazy ideas turn out to be true. Is tornado electricity a stupid idea which is rightly avoided by sensible people, or is it a "heretical" idea which is suppressed by timid, closeminded researchers? Unknown.

Tornados do put out unexplained energy in the form of high frequency radio waves. In the list of references below, the word "sferics" refers to radio static. Some tornados apparantly generate a strange type of VHF radio static which can be recieved on standard television sets and used as a crude sort of tornado-detector. As far as I know, the mechanism which produces this signal is unknown.

There have been eyewitness reports of strange lights associated with nighttime tornados. Many of these can be found in the "Sourcebook" encyclopedia collection published by Dr. W. Corliss. In particular, try to find a copy of LIGHTNING, AURORAS, NOCTURNAL LIGHTS, AND RELATED LUMINOUS PHENOMENA

"Like earthquakes, tornadoes and waterspouts were widely thought to be manifestations of electricity two centuries ago. Today, the role of electricity in generating tornadoes is generally denied. Even the existence of tornado lights, which seem rather reasonable phenomena in the vicinity of powerful tornadoes, are not recognized as legitimate phenomena by many scientists." -Corliss
To me, unexplained lights and radio static are obvious symptoms of unknown electrical processes taking place within some tornados. Declaring such things to be irrational violations of well-known theory is itself irrational! The evidence suggests that current theory is incomplete, even incorrect. Tornado electricity is a topic well deserving of further study.

The situation reminds me of a similar situation involving ball-lightning. Today ball-lightning is nearly a legitimate research topic, but a couple of decades ago it was though to be a symptom of superstion. Scientists couldn't study it; most didn't believe it existed. If you were a witness to ball lightning, your sanity would be questioned if you reported it. And so there were few reports. I wouldn't be suprised to hear that there is far more evidence for tornado electricity than is currently published. If scientists dare not study tornado electricity, then the evidence will tend to stay hidden or go unrecorded, and so everyone will believe that the evidence is weak. A self-fulfilling prophecy, no?

A good site to explore (plus excellent books and videos): TORNADOPROJECT

Good luck in your search. If your scientific reputation is important, be careful. Too much interest in tornado electricity will attract hostile reaction (I've seen this occur more than once on the sci.geo.meteorolgy newsgroup.) Even world-class researchers like Dr. Vonnegut have to take guff for trespassing into this area. Scientists of less stature could be ruined. A young researcher would be advised to avoid it, or at least keep it only as a secret hobby. Join the "weird science" underground, and discuss the topic only with fellow "insane" researchers.

I found the following tornado-electricity references on Dr. M. Bateman's site on Atmospheric Electricity

   Davies-Jones, R.P., and J.H. Golden, On the relation of electrical
   activity to tornadoes, J. Geophys. Res., 80, 1614--1616, 1975.

   Dickson, E.B., and R.J. McConahy, Sferics readings on windstorms and
   tornadoes, Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc., 37, 410--412, 1956.

   Gunn, R., Electric field intensity at the ground under active
   thunderstorms and tornadoes, J. Meteorol., 13, 269--273, 1956.

   Jones, H.L., A sferic method of tornado identification and tracking,
   Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc., 32, 380--385, 1951.

   Jones, H.L., and P.N. Hess, Identification of tornadoes by observation
   of waveform atmospherics, Proc. I.R.E., 40, 1049--1052, 1952.

   Kohl, D.A., Sferics amplitude distribution jump identification of a
   tornado event, Mon. Weather Rev., 90, 451--456, 1962.

   Scouten, D.C., D.T. Stephenson, and W.G. Biggs, A sferic rate
   azimuth-profile of the 1955 Blackwell, Oklahoma, tornado, J. Atmos.
   Sci., 29, 929--936, 1972. 

   Silberg, P.A., Passive electrical measurements from three Oklahoma
   tornadoes, Proc. IEEE, 53, 1197--1204, 1965.

   Thompson, B.J., and R.H. Johnson, Tornadoes: Puzzling phenomena       and 
photographs, (letter), Science, 155, 29--32, 1967.  

   Trost, T.F., and C.E. Nomikos, VHF radio emissions associated with
   tornadoes, J. Geophys. Res., 80, 4117--4118, 1975.

   Vonnegut, B., and C.B. Moore, Electrical activity associated with the
   Blackwell-Udall tornado, J. Meteorol., 14, 284--285, 1957.

   Vonnegut, B., and J.R. Weyer, Luminous phenomena in nocturnal
   tornadoes, Science, 153, 1213--1220, 1966.

   Watkins, D.C., J.D. Cobine, and B. Vonnegut, Electric discharges
   inside tornadoes, Science, 199, 171--174, 1978. ~chartley/blowup.html


First-----warm up your TV set and tune in channel 13. Darken the screen to almost black (use the brightness control).

Second----turn to channel 2 and leave the volume control down (unless you have a broadcaster on that channel). Your tornado detector is now in operation. As a storm approaches, lightning will produce momentary white bands of varying widths across the screen (color sets produce a colored band). A tornado within 15 and 20 miles will produce a totally white screen and remain white (color on color sets). Should this occur, turn off your TV set, take your portable radio and go to a place of shelter immediately.

This system was discovered by Newton Weller of West Des Moines, Iowa after twelve years of study. It works because every TV set has channel 2 set at 55 megacycles. Lightning and tornadoes generate a signal near this frequency which overrides the brightness control. Channel 13 is at the "high" end of the frequency band and is not affected. This is why the darkness must be set on that channel. Keep a portable radio handy for emergency instructions and in case of power failure. Lightning will cause intermittent static on a radio tuned on 550 kilocycles. A tornado will cause steady, continuous static.

The above was featured as the Safety Topic in a newsletter of Argonne National Laboratory.

Follow-up to post:

Subject: Comment regarding tv's as tornado detectors
Date: Mon Apr 17 08:12:45 2006
Posted by Julie
Grade level: nonaligned School: Not applicable
City: Iowa City State/Province: IA Country: USA
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 1145286765.Es Message:

This is a response to your page and its description of using a tv to detect a tornado. Three nights ago, a tornado came right up our street. We were lucky our house wasn't badly damaged. After the city blew the tornado warning siren, we turned our basement tv onto channel 2 (a local station) for the details. Suddenly, the entire screen went entirely white and sound turned to static. I remembered the Weller method of tornado detection from the 1960's, so we left the tv on and ran for our safe corner. After about 10 seconds normal sound returned (we couldn't see the screen, don't know whether it was normal). 10 seconds later the sound went to static again, then normal sound returned. Then it went to static one more time and stayed that way until the electricity went out. About 30 seconds later the tornado came right up our street - we clearly heard it. So, we weren't relying on the Weller method to tell us whether there was a tornado, but it alerted us when to go to the safe corner more reliably than waiting for the roar would have.

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