Plasmoids Wreak Havoc in Tornado Alley!
October 24, 2008
To some, the title above might sound like
science fiction. But evidence has been accumulating
that tornadoes might easily be described as plasma
streams. What's more, tornadoes might be
Tornadoes occur on every continent except
Antarctica, and in every state of the US. Scientists
have been puzzled by their behavior since ancient
times. Lucretius, writing in De Rerum
Natura (circa 60 BC), mentions the phenomenon,
and gets the credit for being the first to suggest
in writing that tornadoes and lightning might be
O then and there that wind, a whirlwind now, deep in
the belly of the cloud spins round in narrow
confines, and sharpens there inside in glowing
furnaces the thunderbolt.
Of course, this was written before
lightning was well-understood, and Lucretius' musings,
to the modern reader, sound a bit like a child
attempting to explain something to another child when
grown-ups aren't around. But we shouldn't dismiss
Lucretius off-hand — he may have been closer to an
accurate description of the phenomenon than modern
The modern "explanation" for the formation of tornadoes
can be summarized as follows, from a National Weather
Stage 1: Before thunderstorms develop, a change in
wind direction and an increase in wind speed with
increasing height creates an invisible, horizontal
spinning effect in the lower atmosphere.
Stage 2: Rising air within the thunderstorm updraft
tilts the rotating air from horizontal to vertical.
Stage 3: An area of rotation, 2-6 miles wide, now
extends through much of the storm. Most strong and
violent tornadoes form within this area of strong
Hey wait — how did we get from Stage 2 to Stage 3?
Well, once the vertical-axis rotation has been
initiated, some of the literature suggests that the
speed of the rotation gets increased as the vortex is
stretched in length. Stretching the vortex makes it
narrower, and the conservation of angular momentum makes
the smaller vortex rotate faster. The faster-rotating
vortex then accelerates more air around it, so it gets
wider again, still spinning at the faster rate. I guess
if you stretch it even more, it will spin even faster,
and then become even wider. Pretty neat trick, actually.
While this "explanation" seems plausible enough on first
glance, it's actually a few fries short of a physics
happy meal. Streamwise vortexes, such as utilized by
this construct, do not actually have any internal power
that they can use to accelerate a far larger body of
air. And while "vortex stretching" can increase
the radial velocity of a vortex, it's not because the
thing is being stretched like a rubber band, and getting
narrower as a result, and where the conservation of
angular momentum then increases the number of
revolutions in a given period of time. It's because
whatever is doing the stretching is lowering the
pressure inside the vortex, and it's the lower pressure
that tightens the radius. An updraft pushing the vortex
up isn't going to supply the low pressure inside the
vortex to do this.
And nothing in the construct even begins to explain the
properties of tornadoes. Even if the powerful updraft in
a supercell thunderstorm could generate a low-pressure
vortex underneath it, the vortex wouldn't be able to do
any damage on the ground. Low-pressure vortexes get
weaker as the distance from the source of the low
pressure increases. When encountering obstacles such as
buildings and cars, such vortexes simply reorganize
elsewhere — they don't push the obstacles out of
the way. It takes a vortex with the size and power of a
tropical cyclone to push stuff out of the way with
thermodynamics. A supercell thunderstorm has nowhere
near the energy of a tropical cyclone, yet a supercell
has faster wind speeds. This means that we're missing
something fundamental in our understanding of these
In all due fairness to meteorologists, they do confess
that they really don't understand what causes tornadoes.
Here's a quote from a web page maintained by the
How do tornadoes form? The classic answer —
"warm moist Gulf air meets cold Canadian air and dry
air from the Rockies" — is a gross
oversimplification. Many thunderstorms form under
those conditions (near warm fronts, cold fronts and
drylines respectively), which never even come close
to producing tornadoes. Even when the large-scale
environment is extremely favorable for tornadic
thunderstorms, as in an SPC "High Risk" outlook, not
every thunderstorm spawns a tornado. The truth is
that we don't fully understand.
OK, that's fine. But in the absense of
understanding, and under pressure from the general
public to demonstrate the principles of the phenomenon,
the publication of intuitively appealing "explanations"
that don't actually work is not exactly respectable
scientific practice. Besides, if you do this, then one
day, when the true nature of the phenomenon becomes
known, then you'll have to say, "Guess what — I
lied. Here's how it actually works. The old explanation
was just something that we thought you'd believe until
we found the real answer." So who is going to believe
But that's not the big problem. When asked if there are
electromagnetic explanations for the development of
tornadoes, here's the dismissal from the
National Severe Storms Laboratory:
As far as scientists understand, tornadoes are
formed and sustained by a purely thermodynamic
process. As a result, their research efforts are
towards that end. They have spent a lot of time
modeling the formation of a tornado and measuring
many parameters in and around a tornado when it is
forming and going through its life cycle. They have
not seen any evidence to support magnetism or
electricity playing a role.
How exactly do you get from "we don't know"
all the way over to "we know it's not that"?
The thermodynamic models of supercell thunderstorms and
tornadoes are riddled with anomalies. Working with
theories that leave anomalies on the table is part of
scientific life, but when inadequate theories become so
widely accepted that they start precluding alternate
strategies, that's not science. Science is progress, or
it's not science. It may be technology, and it may be
credible, and it may make money. But what is already
known is not the domain of scientists. Rather, what
is not known is the pursuit of scientific enquiry,
and new ways of thinking are the bread and butter of
The pursuit for the true nature of tornadoes has led
some researchers to start entertaining ideas that aren't
on the standard list. Peter
Tom Dehel, and the present
author, to name a few, have been looking into the
possibility that tornadoes are, in fact, electromagnetic
in nature. Consider the following specimen.
Thermodynamics can partially explain the white funnel
descending from the cloud above, as a low-pressure free
vortex. But how are we going to explain the
consistent-diameter sheath nearer the ground? And using
only low pressure, how are we going to explain the large
amount of material being stirred up at the ground level,
without being drawn into the vortex?
The only way to get a complete description of the
phenomena is with a construct that includes a charge
stream traveling from the ground to the cloud. This
yields the following properties.
The complete list of properties of supercell
thunderstorms and tornadoes that can be explained within
the new electromagnetic construct is way outside the
scope of this article. So is the really cool part
— explaining how a toroidal plasmoid in the cloud
can generate the electrostatic potential necessary for
the creation of such a charge stream, without creating
lightning instead. But the best part is that
this construct opens up the possibility that tornadoes
might be preventable.
If tornadoes are, in fact, electromagnetic, then it
might be possible to discharge the potential that is
driving the tornado by triggering lightning strikes.
- The rotation of the vortex is accentuated by the
magnetic field generated by the charge stream. As a
result, the vortex is rotating faster than it has a
right to be, given the amount of inflow. This
explains how a large volume of material can be
stirred up at the ground level, without being drawn
into the vortex. Because of high angular velocities
and relatively low inflow velocities, the larger
particles are being centrifuged out of the vortex at
the entry point.
- The lower sheath is caused by the presence of
ferrous and/or ferric oxide particles, which are
magnetically responsive, and therefore are captured
by the magnetic field around the charge stream.
Sounds crazy, I know, but then so did the idea of
sending a man to the Moon when it was first proposed.
Good scientists just follow the physics, and that's all
we're doing here. Everyone else will catch up at their
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