Part I – Electrical Phenomenon
How much electricity is there in the universe? This question may be impossible to answer, but we suspect that it’s a whole lot! While most people think about electricity as something that they use in their homes, cars & phones, it’s really everywhere. And not just here on Earth.
Electricity is present wherever we find plasma. Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter. 99.999% of the universe is in the plasma state, which means that magnetic fields & currents are almost everywhere.
What’s even cooler, electricity occurs in many natural phenomenon, some of which are downright amazing and strange. Want to have a peek into the weird & wacky worlds of electricity? Then, read on!
Called Kugelblitz in German, this type of lighting travels while floating in a ball shape and is extremely dangerous. It’s also mysterious. No one can say for sure what causes it, or what it is. Certainly, it’s been mistaken for the paranormal. A 2019 Russian video along railroad tracks shows just how eerie ball lightning can look and why people might mistake it for ghosts or aliens.
Scientists have tried to re-create ball lightning in lab situations. One thing that makes it really odd – witnesses have claimed that it can have a smell of earth or sulfur, leading some to believe that it is somehow of terrestrial origin.
Other theories say that it's tied to earthquakes, can happen around glass, is caused by microwave radiation or that it's merely human hallucinations. While there seems to be enough eye-witness accounts and recent video footage to disprove the later theory, who knows for sure? But please, if you see ball lightning, get out of the way.
Let’s talk about Aurora Borealis, Aurora Australis, the Northern Lights, Southern Lights & Polar Lights. They’re all the same phenomenon! But perhaps a bit geographically diverse.
To understand this effect, we have to learn about solar winds. These winds are actually a stream of plasma with charged particles from the corona of the sun, which reach supersonic speeds. When they reach the Earth’s magnetosphere, the magic begins. Is it more complicated than that? You bet! Many conditions have to be right for the lights to glow at night, but a lot of it has to do with the type of particles blown our way and the speed at which they hit the upper atmosphere. And of course, it's dependent on latitude. In the north, look for a magnetic latitude above 55° with low light pollution. It’s a bit more complicated in the south, because there is less land mass. The options are basically limited to Tasmania or New Zealand, and obviously, Antarctica.
The Aurora Borealis are probably the most well known phenomenon on our list, and probably the best documented out of any other that are listed here. But that doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
Bioluminescence & Electrical Animals
We don’t think you’re ready for this jelly. This jellyfish!. Some jellyfish exhibit bioluminescence and glow a beautiful blue, deep in the ocean. It's produced by green fluorescent protein, commonly known as GFP (green flourescent protein). A Swedish University technology team put GFP on aluminum electrodes and then put that under ultraviolet light. The protein released electrons, which travel a circuit to produce electricity! So, electricity can be generated without an external light source. Who knew jelly fish could come in so handy? The green lean mean green protein has been used to make fuel cells! These can be used on small devices that could be inserted into a human body to diagnose or treat a disease.
But they aren’t the only animals that do this. If you’ve even been swimming in the ocean at night, you might have seen bioluminescent algae on the service of the water. Also known as sea sparkle, it’s actually plankton that float on the surface and react when you swim by them.
Other kinds of animals use electricity for something other than glowing. Think about the electric eel, which use electricity to stun prey & communicate. But it turns out there are lots of other less well known electric fish, some with strong electricity (from 10 to 860 volts with a current of up to ampere.
Sprites, Elves, Gnomes & Pixies
We’re not in the forest primeval. These are real terms for electrical phenomenon under the header of upper-atmospheric or ionospheric lightning. Let’s start with sprites. Often called red sprites, these are huge electrical discharges that occur above thunderstorm clouds, in the troposphere, which is anywhere from 50-90 km in altitude. Despite their name, they often actually look like atmospheric jellyfish, with tendrils hanging down, and they are mostly observed in groups. Their name is more a reference to how hard it is to find one. What they actually are: electrical discharges of positive lighting to a lower lying thundercloud, or the ground. Given these facts, it’s hard not to argue with the name. Let’s settle for jellyfish sprite.
ELVES are Emission of Light and Very low frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic pulse Sources. We did not come up with the acronym! But, being as it is, it fits in well into this category. Unlike their spritely cousins, ELVES produce a dim, flat, yet expanding glow that lasts for one whole millisecond. They are the highest of these atmospheric events, occurring at altitudes around 100 km.
Gnomes are tiny little white flashes that occur at the top of a thundercloud. And Pixies are even smaller, at less than 100 m wide, they flash randomly at the top of a cloud. How cute!
In direct contrast to the last item on our list, dark lightning isn’t at all beautiful. In fact, you can’t see it at all. It occurs during regular thunderstorms, alongside normal bright lightning. But there are bolts that are invisible and they are made out of x-rays and gamma rays. And the power of the dark lightning is more powerful than the visible stuff, but it dissipates quicker than the normal bolt that we see. Welcome to the dark side!
Since we can’t see it, the only way to detect it is with a radiation detector. And while it wouldn’t hurt you immediately to get hit by dark lightning, you could get an unsafe dose of radiation. This would most likely happen if you were in an airplane during a thunderstorm.
The weird thing? No one even knows if they’ve ever been hit. It’s a dark mystery.
The Global Circuit
Who knows where the largest circuit in the universe is located? Well, from our point of view, a really large circuit is the whole Earth! There is continuous movement of electricity between the atmosphere and the Earth. Changes in solar radiation and weather contribute to a continuous global electrical current.
Basically it works like this: thunderstorms are responsible for bringing negative charges to the surface and, in turn, nice weather gradually discharges this negativity. Funny thing, sunny weather also discharges our negative moods. Is this a coincidence?
There is significant voltage in the Earth’s circuit. A typical potential good weather gradient is 120 V/m. Over the entire planet, there is a general value of 1800 Ampere. But these values change with the weather and are specifically influenced by turbulence, winds and thunderstorms. The current can be measured with a daily pattern, called the Carnegie curve, which measures daily variations in atmospheric electricity,
Maybe that's what happens when a tornado meets a volcano? No, those are lyrics taken from a song by Eminem & Rihanna. Dirty Thunderstorms are what happens when a thunderstorm meets a volcano. It’s still mega cool. It occurs when ash particles from a volcanic eruption collide, generating electricity in the volcanic plume. Unlike normal thunderstorms, no ice crystals are necessary.
The result is nothing less spectacular than it sounds.
St. Elmo’s Fire
“I can climb the highest mountain, cross the widest sea. I can feel St. Elmo's fire burning in me.” – John Parr.
Not just a great title song, to a fantastic 80’s movie, St. Elmo’s Fire is a real electrical phenomenon. Named after St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, it often occurs on ships, which has long been considered as a good omen by those afloat. But it also can happen anywhere where there are sharply pointed objects, such as chimneys, airplane wings, even on the tips of bull horns. And it has a sound, which buzzes. And a color, which is often described as blue or purple.
It’s really a form of plasma. An electrical field is created around a pointy object and the air molecules become ionized. This can happen at any time, but during thunderstorms, St. Elmo’s Fire is more likely to be visible because there are higher differentials between the clouds and the ground. Sharp objects lower the voltage because the electric field is concentrated where there is more curvature. Voila! St. Elmo ignites!
While there is no song for Catatumbo lightning, there should be. If you know of a Spanish song about this phenomenon, please post it in the comments.
The Catatumbo River is in Venezuela, and there is a permanent thunderstorm above the mouth of the river, where it meets Lake Maracaibo. By permanent, we mean that there's thunder at this exact spot on 140-160 days per year. What?
While it changes in frequency and intensity throughout the year, depending on seasons, it’s kind of always happening. The water is the key. And we could call it the perfect storm. Winds from the lake and the surrounding swamps meet the air from the Andes mountains & two other mountain ranges. One source brings hot air, the other moisture, and when all these systems collide, continuous thunderstorms with continuous lightning occur.
The mouth of the Catatumbo River is located in Zulia State in Venezuela, one of the most populated areas of the country, which is also where many natural resources, including oil and gas, can be found.
The Weird & Wacky World of Electrical Stuff
Did you enjoy our summary of the world’s (and beyond) electrical phenomenon? This is just the first article in our series about the Electrical Universe. Upcoming topics include, Electricity in Myth & Legend, Electric Sports & a Short History of Electricity.
Stay tuned & stay safe!