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Credit: Historic NWS Collection, Dr. Joseph Golden, NOAA
Because the Earth is a small
charged body moving in a large cell of plasma, explanations of all
physical phenomena in, on, and near the Earth must take the
electrical behavior of plasma into account. The waterspout shows us
once again that plasma behavior can take many different forms.
There are two types of waterspout; one type is simply a tornado
over water. The other (true waterspout) is less powerful than a
tornado. It forms in a different way and often in a different
season. It dissipates quickly if it happens to move over land.
Waterspouts occur in oceans or large lakes. They are common in
the Great Lakes in months when the water is warmest—August,
September, and October. They are most likely to occur when the water
is warm, the air is cold and moist, and the winds are light. (They
are predictable enough that the weather service issues waterspout
warnings when conditions are right for their formation.)
First a circular white spot surrounded by an irregular dark
area forms on the water's surface. Next a pattern of light and dark
bands spiral outwards. Then a dense, swirling ring of spray, called
a cascade, appears around the dark spot and rises toward the clouds.
When it connects to the clouds, the waterspout begins to move with
the clouds. When the waterspout is mature, it can be several hundred
feet high. It often creates a visible wake and a wave train as it
moves (see photo above).
Russian plasma physicist V. A. Rantsev-Kartinov studied
waterspouts from a plasma point of view. He came to understand the
waterspout as a long-lasting discharge current between the plasma
networks of the ocean surface (or lake surface) and the electrical
charge of the clouds above.
Every world in the solar system is a charged body orbiting in a
plasma. On Earth, there are many ways that the plasma interactions
between Earth and space show up—auroras, lightning, sprites and
elves, tornados, hurricanes, waterspouts and dust devils,
geomagnetic storms. On other worlds, different modes of electrical
interaction are seen—giant dust devils on Mars, ion "rains"
on Europa, the plasma discharges of Io, the coma and tails of comets,
the spokes of Saturn's rings, the complex magnetospheres of Earth
and the giant planets. The solar system we see today is much more
electrically active than what we imagined it would be 50 years ago,
before the first satellite was launched. It would be easier to
understand if we paid closer attention to what we've learned of
plasma behavior in the lab, and to the interactions of electricity
between Earth and space.