Atmospheric Electromagnetism

Signor Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), an Italian anatomy professor, would today have a hard time explaining his experiments with animals. Inserting a copper hook into the spinal cord of a frog and hanging it on the balcony would surely whip up the passions of animal liberationists. The frog was presumably dead, let’s hope, because the aim of the experiment was to bring it back to life – at least partially. In the manner of the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, he proved that the electrically charged air near a thunderstorm is enough to make a dead frog’s leg twitch.

Researchers at the University of Giessen, Germany, had a similar idea in 1995. They tested 126 people for sensitivity to atmospheric electromagnetism, or sferics. No, they didn’t use copper hooks and the subjects weren’t exposed to lightning strikes. In a chamber that was gold plated to minimize outside interference, they simulated weak sferics similar to the naturally occurring variety near thunderstorms. The graphic record of the subjects’ brain responses revealed heightened activity during the experiments. This brain activity was particularly high in a group of women known as being sensitive to weather.

If anything, this proves that to be human- to live – requires more than just water and chemical compounds. We need that proverbial ‘spark’ in our lives. Or to put it not quite so dramatic, electronic impulses, together with chemical compounds, play a vital role in transmitting nerve and brain signals. Psychics tell us that they can feel or see a person’s aura, the field of energy that surrounds every human being. Bio-Electrography, also known as Kirlian photography, named after a Russian scientist, reveals an energy corona around living objects on photographic paper or special video equipment.

lightning_flashYou’ve probably heard that some animals, especially migratory birds, use an inbuilt ‘compass’ and the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Scientists have found a magnetic mineral called magnetite in the body tissue which acts as the sensor. Zoologists currently discuss the possibility that some whales use the same technique. Disturbances in the magnetic field would, therefore, explain whale beachings.

In 1979, students of the University of Manchester, England, became the ‘pigeons’ in a test to search for leftover homing capabilities in humans. The blindfolded students were driven for an hour on winding roads and then asked to point into the direction of their campus. Most were fairly accurate.

The test could be pure coincidence, but today we know that the human brain contains magnetite as well. The challenge is to find out the amount and what the mineral is doing in our brains in the first place. Since you and I are living on a giant magnet, the earth, some form of interference with our nervous system is the logical consequence. Magnetite in the brain could at least explain the ability of some people to ‘feel’ the charged atmosphere of an approaching thunderstorm.

You and I are constantly exposed to the electromagnetic radiation from microwave ovens, radio and television sets, computer terminals, power lines, mobile phones and a growing list of other sources. You read stories of greater numbers of cancer victims who lived near power lines and of the possible risk of ‘frying’ your brain when using a mobile phone. The World Health Organization wants to put matters to rest and is funding a project to study the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

If the doomsayers are right, hopefully we can do something about man-made magnetism in the future. There is not much we can do, however, against the wide range of natural electromagnetism. Two types are strong enough to grab the attention of biometeorologists: atmospheric discharges (sferics), and the ionization of the atmosphere (ions).


sfericsSferics is short for atmospherics, the name radio operators gave to the crackling noise in their loudspeakers and headphones, caused by nearby or distant lightning. The US Lightning Detection Network registers over 20 million lightning flashes per year, while worldwide the estimate is for 100 strikes per second. In addition, many discharges occur high in the atmosphere and remain undetected.

A multimillion-volt lightning bolt announces its presence by sending out electromagnetic signals, sferics, with the speed of light. They are strong enough to twitch nearby dead frog legs, as in Signor Galvani’s experiment, and to sour milk. Further away – instruments can measure them hundreds of kilometres away – cats get nervous and ants prepare their mounds in preparation for the expected rain and wind. Some scientist believe that sferics are also the main cause of weather sensitivity in humans.

Headaches are the main symptoms of this kind of weather sensitivity. But statistical evidence also implicates sferics with emotional stress and mood swings, irregularities with heart rhythm and blood circulation, and epileptic attacks.


Right now you are breathing electricity. I am too, and everybody else. All the atoms, molecules and airborne particles are home to electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and provide a balance to the positive centre of the particle. When a particle loses a negative electron, the positive force is stronger – the particle becomes a positive ion. The lost electron is likely to attach to a different particle. This can cause an overpopulation of negative electrons and create a negative ion. The air is ionized when large quantities of either type of ion exist.

Nature forces the migration of electrons in several ways. X-rays and UV radiation split electrons from their host. Collisions and friction amongst particles, caused by air turbulence or water movement, also ionizes the air. The negative ions near waterfalls, ocean waves and amongst the rustling leaves in forests may have something to do with the calming effect of these environments on people. On the other hand, positive ions in polluted air and near synthetic building materials and clothing are thought to be detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. Advocates of this theory recommend the use of negative ion generators.

Critics argue that ions don’t live very long. This is true. They prefer to be neutral and pass on the excess electron to needy neighbours. Independent ions don’t live longer than five minutes, while clumps of ions survive for up to 20 minutes. Nevertheless, as long as the cause of the ionization exists, the supply won’t run out.

The quantity of ions in the air depends largely on the weather conditions. In dry conditions, ions tend to survive longer and are, therefore, in greater numbers. Certain mountain and desert winds contain large quantities of positive ions. People exposed to these winds often display initial euphoria followed by headache, migraine, depression or exhaustion. Lightning is a major producer of either type of ions. Humid and foggy conditions reduce the numbers.

Research into the effect of ions on human health is very inconsistent. Some research papers provide undeniable proof while others conclude the opposite. Perhaps, as is the case with sferics, individuals react differently to ion exposure, or not at all. Some evidence points to benefits in treating respiratory problems, such as asthma, bronchitis and hay fever, with ionized air. The theory is that ions act on the nerve fibres in the airways, and influence the production of mucus and the movement of the cilia, the tiny hair-like organs that clean the airways.

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