Telluric current

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A telluric current (from Latin tellūs, "earth"), or Earth current,[1] is an electric current that flows underground or through the sea, resulting from natural and human-induced causes. These currents are extremely low frequency and traverse large areas near or at the Earth's surface. The Earth's crust and mantle are host to telluric currents, with around 32 mechanisms generating them, primarily geomagnetically-induced currents caused by changes in the Earth's magnetic field due to solar wind interactions with the magnetosphere or solar radiation's effects on the ionosphere. These currents exhibit diurnal patterns, flowing towards the Sun during the day and towards the poles at night.

Both telluric and magnetotelluric methods exploit these currents for subsurface exploration, aiding in activities like geothermal and mineral exploration, petroleum prospecting, fault zone mapping, groundwater assessment, and the study of tectonic plate boundaries. The phenomenon has also captured the imagination of authors, finding its way into fiction. In Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, the search for a mystic center of the Earth connects to telluric currents, while Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon incorporates them as enigmatic communication conduits alongside Hollow Earth theories. These fictional representations mirror the scientific intrigue and creative potential linked with telluric currents.


Telluric currents are phenomena observed in the Earth's crust and mantle. In September 1862, an experiment to specifically address Earth currents was carried out in the Munich Alps (Lamont, 1862).[2] Including minor processes, there are at least 32 different mechanisms which cause telluric currents.[3] The strongest are primarily geomagnetically induced currents, which are induced by changes in the outer part of the Earth's magnetic field, which are usually caused by interactions between the solar wind and the magnetosphere or solar radiation effects on the ionosphere. Telluric currents flow in the surface layers of the Earth. The electric potential on the Earth's surface can be measured at different points, enabling the calculation of the magnitudes and directions of the telluric currents and hence the Earth's conductance. These currents are known to have diurnal characteristics wherein the general direction of flow is towards the Sun.[4][5] Telluric currents continuously move between the sunlit and shadowed sides of the Earth, toward the equator on the side of the Earth facing the Sun (that is, during the day), and toward the poles on the night side of the planet.

Both telluric and magnetotelluric methods are used for exploring the structure beneath the Earth's surface (such as in industrial prospecting). For mineral exploration the targets are any subsurface structures with a distinguishable resistance in comparison to its surroundings. Uses include geothermal exploration, mining exploration, petroleum exploration, mapping of fault zones, ground water exploration and monitoring, investigation of magma chambers, and investigation of boundaries of tectonic plates. Earth batteries tap a useful low voltage current from telluric currents and were used for telegraph systems as far back as the 1840s.[6]

In industrial prospecting activity that uses the telluric current method, electrodes are properly located on the ground to sense the voltage difference between locations caused by the oscillatory telluric currents.[7][8] It is recognized that a low frequency window (LFW) exists when telluric currents pass through the Earth's substrata. In the frequencies of the LFW, the Earth acts as a conductor.[9]

In fiction[edit]

The main plot of the 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco revolves around conspiracy theorists who believe they are searching for the Umbilicus Mundi (Latin: "The Navel of the World"), the mystic "Center of The Earth" which is supposed to be a certain point from where a person could control the energies and shapes of the Earth, thus reforming it at will. The novel takes this even further by suggesting that (in the view of the conspiratorialists) monuments like the Eiffel Tower are nothing more than giant antennas related to these energies.[10]

Telluric currents, along what are effectively ley lines, are discovered to be a means of mysterious communication in Thomas Pynchon's 1997 novel, Mason & Dixon, and are associated with the book's Chinese-Jesuit subplot. As with Eco, cited above, Pynchon also reflects upon Hollow Earth theories in this work.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Earth Currents" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 813–816. This has a detailed history of observations as understood at the time.
  2. ^ Lamont, J. V. (1862). Der Erdstrom und der Zusammen desselben mit dem Erdmagnetismus. Leipzig und Muenchen: Leopold-Voss-Verlag.
  3. ^ Helman, Daniel S. (2013). "Earth electricity: a review of mechanisms which cause telluric currents in the lithosphere". Annals of Geophysics. Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia. 56 (5). doi:10.4401/ag-6184. ISSN 2037-416X.
  4. ^ U.S. Patent 3,361,957, D. L. Hings, Telluric current responsive device having spaced conductors for positioning adjacent the Earth's surface
  5. ^ Jahr, Emil, "U.S. Patent 690,151 Method of utilizing electrical earth currents".
  6. ^ Turnbull, Laurence (1853), The electro magnetic telegraph: with an historical account of its rise, progress, and present condition. Also, practical suggestions in regard to insulation, and protection from the effects of lightning. Together with an appendix, containing several important telegraphic decisions and laws (2 ed.), Philadelphia: A. Hart, p. 162
  7. ^ Dobrin, "Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting", McGraw Hill (3rd Ed. 1976) pg. 592.
  8. ^ U.S. Patent 4,686,475, C. L. Kober, Passive geophysical prospection system based upon the detection of the vertical electric field component of telluric currents and method therefore
  9. ^ Burrell et al., "Pulse Propagation in Lossy Media Using the Low Frequency Window for Video Pulsed Radar Application", Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 67, No. 7, July 1979, pgs. 981-990.
  10. ^ Barron, Michael (February 22, 2016). "Umberto Eco Taught the World How to Think About Conspiracies and Fascism". Vice. Retrieved 2022-10-12.
  11. ^ Prothero, Donald R. (2020). Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas about Our Planet. Red Lightning Books. ISBN 978-1684350612.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allaby, Ailsa; Allaby, Michael, eds. (1999). "Telluric current". A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. Oxford University Press.
  • Berdichevskiĭ, Mark Naumovich (1963). Elektricheskaya razvedka metodom telluricheskikh tokov [Electrical surveying by means of telluric currents]. Translated by J. E. S. Bradley. Boston Spa, Yorkshire: National Lending Library for Science and Technology. LCCN 92140338.
  • Gideon, D. N.; Hopper, A. T.; Thompson, R. E. (1970). Earth current effects on buried pipelines: analysis of observations of telluric gradients and their effects. New York: Battelle Memorial Institute and the American Gas Association.
  • Hoover, Donald B.; Pierce, H. A.; Merkel, D. C. (1986). Telluric traverse and self potential data release in the vicinity of the Pinson Mine, Humboldt County, Nevada". U.S. Geological Survey open-file report; 86-341. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey.
  • Lanzerotti, Louis J.; Gregori, Giovanni P. (1986). "Chapter 16: Telluric Currents: The Natural Environment and Interactions with Man-made Systems". The Earth's Electrical Environment. US National Academies Press, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Applications. ISBN 0-309-03680-1.
  • Seeley, Robert L.; Tippens, C. L.; Hoover, Donald B. Circuitry of the U.S.G.S. telluric profiler U.S. Geological Survey open-file report; 87-332. Denver, CO: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey.
  • Wait, J. R. (1954). "On the relation between telluric currents and the earth's magnetic field". Geophysics. 19 (2): 281–289. Bibcode:1954Geop...19..281W. doi:10.1190/1.1437994.

External links[edit]

  • MTNet, Scientists engaged in the study of the Earth using electromagnetic methods, principally the magnetotelluric technique (magnetotellurics).