Kennelly–Heaviside layer

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The Kennelly–Heaviside layer, named after Arthur E. Kennelly and Oliver Heaviside, also known as the E region or simply the Heaviside layer, is a layer of ionised gas occurring between roughly 90–150 km (56–93 mi) above the ground — one of several layers in the Earth's ionosphere. It reflects medium-frequency radio waves, and because of this reflection, radio waves can be propagated beyond the horizon.

Propagation is affected by time of day. During the daytime the solar wind presses this layer closer to the Earth, thereby limiting how far it can reflect radio waves. Conversely, on the night (lee) side of the Earth, the solar wind drags the ionosphere further away, thereby greatly increasing the range which radio waves can travel by reflection, called skywave. The extent of the effect is further influenced by the season, and the amount of sunspot activity.


Its existence was predicted in 1902 independently and almost simultaneously by the American electrical engineer Arthur Edwin Kennelly (1861–1939) and the British physicist Oliver Heaviside (1850–1925). However, it was not until 1924 that its existence was shown by British scientist Edward V. Appleton, for which he received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics. Physicists resisted the idea of the reflecting layer for one very good reason; it would require total internal reflection, which in turn would require that the speed of light ("c") in the ionosphere would be greater than in the atmosphere below it. Since the latter speed is essentially the same as the speed of light in vacuum, scientists were unwilling to believe the speed in the ionosphere could be higher. Nevertheless, Marconi had received signals in Newfoundland that were broadcast in England, so clearly there must be some mechanism allowing the transmission to reach that far. The paradox was resolved by the discovery that there were two velocities of light, the phase velocity and the group velocity. The phase velocity can in fact be greater than c, but the group velocity, being capable of transmitting information, cannot, by special relativity, be greater than c. The phase velocity for radio waves in the ionosphere is indeed greater than c, and that makes total internal reflection possible, and so the ionosphere can reflect radio waves. The geometric mean of the phase velocity and the group velocity cannot exceed c, so when the phase velocity goes above c, the group velocity must go below it. In 1925, Americans Gregory Breit and Merle A. Tuve first mapped its variations in altitude. The ITU standard model of absorption and reflection of radio waves by the Heaviside Layer was developed by the British Ionospheric physicist Louis Muggleton[1] in the 1970s.

Cultural impact[edit]

The "Heaviside layer" is used as a metaphor for Heaven in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. This reference is based on a quotation found in a letter written by T. S. Eliot, whose book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats forms the basis of the musical. In the musical, one cat is chosen each year by Old Deuteronomy to go to the Heaviside Layer and begin a new life. In the song "The Journey to the Heaviside Layer", it is stated that the Heaviside Layer is "past the Russell Hotel" and "past the Jellicle moon", indicating that it is very far away and difficult to access.

At the end of the musical, Grizabella is chosen to go the Heaviside Layer. She does so by ascending on a flying tyre until she reaches a structure resembling clouds, into which she disappears, although in the film version of Cats she ascends with Old Deuteronomy and then she walks up a giant metal hand to the Heaviside Layer.

Eliot also refers to the "Heaviside Layer" in his play The Family Reunion which explores issues around the afterlife, heaven and hell.

In Tim Powers' supernatural spy novel Declare the Heaviside layer is the realm of the "spirits of the upper air".

In Thomas Pynchon's 1964 short story "The Secret Integration", a boy's dreams are affected "when the thing in the sky, the Heaviside layer, was right for it."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ L.M. Muggleton (1975). "A method of predicting foE at any time and place". ITU Telecommunication Journal. 42: 413–418. Bibcode:1975ITUTJ..42..413M.