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What are Whistlers?. A whistler is an electromagnetic radio wave that when converted to sound is usually experienced as a descending tone.

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What are Whistlers?

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What are whistlers

What are Whistlers?

What are whistlers

A whistler is an electromagnetic radio wave that when converted to sound is usually experienced as a descending tone.

What are whistlers

Although a whistler is an EM wave, it is a very low frequency wave, much lower than what we normally think of for a radio wave. It is so low that little more than a long wire and audio amplifier is needed to pick it up.

What are whistlers




Legitimized Observations!


What are whistlers


World War I

What are whistlers

L. R. Owen Storey first worked out the origin of whistlers in 1952 for his PhD thesis at Cavendish Laboratory University of Cambridge

What are whistlers

Whistlers with


Whistlers without


What are whistlers

Whistler pairs




What are whistlers

400 cm-3

Owen’s Quite Unpopular Answer:

Ionosphere can typically only produce D ~ 2 s1/2

while dispersions of D ~ 60 s1/2 are measured.

WORSE: H. J. A. Ratcliffe, Owen’s thesis adviser, presents his results at the 1952 URSI meeting in Sydney, but notes Owen’s theoretical interpretation is probably wrong.

What are whistlers

Robert Helliwell

“The Father of Whistler Research”

mid – 1950’s

Seattle, WA

Unalaska, AK

Stanford, CA

Byrd Station,


What are whistlers

Donald Carpenter, 1963

Discovers the Plasmapause from ground whistlers

What are whistlers

Konstantin Gringauz, 1959

Makes the first in-space measurements of the plasmasphere from Luna 2

URSI 1963

Whistlers can last for 10 s of seconds how is that possible

Whistlers Can Last For 10’s of Seconds; How is That Possible?

Since EM whistlers waves travel very great distances, you would expect their strength to fall rapidly as the waves spread out.

That does not happen, because small irregularities in the density of ionized gas (plasma) guides and confines the energy to narrow channels that maintain the strength of the wave until some is passed into the opposite hemisphere and some is reflected back.

So what is frequency dispersion

So What is Frequency Dispersion?

You may know that the speed sound travels is different for different types of medium and state of matter or phase.

vsolids > vliquids > vgases

In Air: v = 331 m/s + (0.6 m/s/C)*T

(at 20oC it is 343 m/s)

In Water at 20oC it is 1483 m/s,

while in structural steel is it 4512 m/s

So what is frequency dispersion1

So What is Frequency Dispersion?

In a dispersive medium waves of different frequency have different wavelengths and consequently move with different speeds.

For Whistler Electromagnetic Waves the dispersion equation is:

(Or just check out the slinky)

Whistler propagation theory


Whistler Propagation Theory

Dispersion effect weighted toward equatorial densities

Carpenter & Smith 1964

What possible reason could i have had to inflict the last two slides on you

What Possible Reason Could I Have Had to Inflict the Last Two Slides on You?

Well… Really just to make one point. A whistler sounds the way it does, because of how things are in space near the Earth. Anyone can pick up whistlers with a low frequency radio receiver. You know how a sound is different when you hear it outside as compared to in a small room or in a large auditorium. To hear the sound is to also experience the environment where you hear it. Hearing whistlers allows us to experience a small part of space near Earth that is also like that near Jupiter, Saturn, and elsewhere in the universe. It is beautiful to hear and a tool for exploring the universe.

Space is Accessible!

What are whistlers



Burton and Boardman Introduced the Sound Spectrograph in 1930

What are whistlers

Frequency Dispersion




















How can whistlers be used in the classroom

How Can Whistlers Be Used in the Classroom?

  • To teach the history of discovery and the hardship of changing people’s minds

  • To inspire youth to imagine they can study the universe; the universe holds secrets revealed by measurements accessible to them

  • To teach the application of mathematics, graphing, and skills of scientific interpretation

  • To teach critical thinking; how weather on Earth and in space is connected through whistlers; how other measures of space weather can be used to interpret their observations

  • To teach about the Earth’s magnetic field, how it reaches into space (not just on the surface) and how it is changing over time now and in the past

  • To teach about how sound and other waves move through matter

  • What else?

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