Atmospheric Electricity at the Frontiers of Science?

August 31, 2015 - 12:48pm

Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.       – Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)


Global Electric Circuit, Source: UCARNot too very long ago I added a few paragraphs to a grant solicitation called the Frontiers of Earth Systems Dynamics: Electrical Connections and Consequences within the Earth System, for principle investigator (to be), Professor Jeff Forbes, from the University of Colorado’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. The grant looked interesting; the team, impressive. I would enjoy bringing the science of the global electric circuit to others and learning along the way.

That was nearly five years ago. Since then, I’ve had an insider's view to the process of science and the work of an amazing team from multiple disciplines spanning electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, cloud physics, upper atmosphere processes, geophysics, applied mathematics, and more from across a host of institutions. Each year undergraduate to post graduate students join in the annual meeting and count their lucky stars, like I do, to learn and contribute in varying degrees to this project's objectives. 

This team is studying of course, electricity. I presume you're wondering the obvious question: Why? How is this at the frontiers of Earth system dynamics? Hasn’t the topic been exhaustively studied?

N. Tesla's Tower in Long IslandSince the 1600s we’ve learned a thing or two about electricity, from William Gilbert and Otto von Guerick in the 1600s to the march of other great inventors – Franklin, Volta, Ohm, Oersted, Faraday, Henry, Morse, Marconi, Edison, Westinghouse… and Tesla. Oh yes, Nikola Tesla. He was the first inventor to propose using electricity produced in the atmosphere’s electrified ionosphere for humanity's use. His ill fated Wardenclyffe Tower at the turn of the century (1901-1903) was funded by industrialist J.P. Morgan but ultimately was never completed due to lack of funding beyond original projections that turned out to be poor projections. (Business savvy was not Tesla’s genius.)

Shortly thereafter in 1909, the non-magnetic, wooden-hulled Carnegie vessel sailed the oceans as part of the Institution's ambitious magnetic, electric, and oceanographic survey of the oceans. At the vessel's launch in 1909, it was announced that the Carnegie vessel would,  “Increase our knowledge of the constitution of the Earth's magnetic field and variations of the electricity in the atmosphere surrounding the Earth." 

Carnegie Vessel 1909-1929, Source: SmithsonianLittle did they know back then that the data collected by the vessel from 1909 to 1929 would still be relevant in 2015. Scientists involved in the Electricity Connections and Consequences within the Atmosphere project, and at NOAA and elsewhere, still use the magnetic and electrical measurements based on the ship’s observational data from its voyages across the world’s oceans.

In the past half-century, the geosciences have seen tremendous growth and advancement in prediction capabilities and decision-making. These advances have been driven by our ability to instrument and observe the Earth; sustained improvements in computational models; and the relentless growth in computing power. These are the same advancements that have created new opportunities at the frontiers of science: namely, to research and model Earth’s electrical atmosphere so that its connections can be understood, and the consequences of potential connections explored.

Tesla QuoteEarth’s global electric circuit is truly at the frontiers of science. The story of scientists researching Earth’s global electric circuit and translating its components' various time and spatial scales into a three-dimensional model has been a symphony in the making. Early in the last quarter of the 20th Century, climate scientists similarly set out to build models of Earth’s climate system, which resulted in prediction and decision-making advances that have helped us to move toward international action on the Grand Challenge of our time.

35 years from now, who knows what we will discover about Earth’s atmospheric electricity and the connections and consequences of the system. But one thing I am sure of – Nikola Tesla would be smiling.

Teri Eastburn
UCAR Center for Science Education 

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Teri Eastburn

Teri Eastburn has worked in education at UCAR for over 15 years as the manager for the UCAR Center for Science Education's School and Public Programs, it's Digital Learning Technology group, and most recently as the Lead for UCARConnect. For over 10 years, she enjoyed sharing the science and history of UCAR and NCAR with members of the public both young and old on tours and field trips, including the history of it's computing capabilities and its exponential growth since its founding in 1960 with 14 member universities, now over 110.