An illustration of wires affected by air movement, drawn by Patricia Ann Davis, from the book Alaska Science Nuggets by Neil Davis.

An illustration of wires affected by air movement, drawn by Patricia Ann Davis, from the book Alaska Science Nuggets by Neil Davis.

Alaska Science Forum: Mystery of the dancing wires revealed

In this quiet, peaceful time of year, with all the noisy birds flown south and all the scary bears in hillside dens, little things catch our attention. Like wires that move as if by magic.

Aurora scientist and interested-in-all-things guy Neal Brown contacted me to see if I had written about why power wires sometimes dance to their own beat when there seems to be no wind or other force pushing them. He notices it seems to happen when the temperature is rising. I pulled out Neil Davis’s Alaska Science Nuggets and found the answer.

First, though, a refresher on that book — a compilation of 400 of these columns — and why you are reading this right now.

Neil Davis was a do-all scientist at UAF’s Geophysical Institute from the 1960s to the 1980s. He started this column in 1976 at the urging of a newspaper editor. Davis wrote hundreds of the columns, which the Geophysical Institute has distributed free to newspapers. Other writers took over the column from Davis. I am the latest in that line, having started in fall of 1994. The directors of the Geophysical Institute have supported the column since its beginning.

Back to the dancing wires. Each wire out there has a certain tune to which it responds, known as a resonant frequency. It’s what a little girl finds when she twirls a jumprope at just the right speed and gets a perfect loop whistling through the air.

Sometimes, even if we can’t feel it, a slight breeze nudges a power wire. Wires are even more responsive to wind when snow clings to them, as it often does up here in the Interior.

“If the wire can be repeatedly tickled ever so slightly at the proper frequency, it will build up a major oscillation,” Davis wrote.

To move, wires need energy applied at their ends or in the middle. The latter is similar to a finger picking a guitar string. In this case the wind is acting as the finger.

As a guest writer of this column in 1978, late butterfly and moth expert Ken Philip described the process:

“Air moving past the wire is impeded by the wire; the air closest to the wire moves the slowest. The result is a curling up of the air behind the wire to form vortices — rotating spirals within which the air spins faster the closer it is to the center.”

These invisible little curls of air shove the wire as they depart. Sometimes those kicks happen at the sweet frequency of the wire, which responds by moving.

For the overly curious who must confirm things, Philip suggested blowing soap bubbles. They will float on a breeze that no cheek or anemometer can detect, allowing you to visualize the air that tickles the wire.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in Neighbors

Athletes practice new moves while wrestling during a 2023 Labor Day weekend clinic at the Juneau Youth Wrestling Club. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neighbors briefs

Juneau Youth Wrestling Club hosting two clinics this summer The Juneau Youth… Continue reading

Ingredients for cauliflower shrimp salad ready to prepare. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for pleasure: Cauliflower shrimp salad

I realize that this combination sounds a bit odd, but I’ve become… Continue reading

Fred LaPlante is the pastor at the Juneau Church of the Nazarene. (Photo courtesy of Fred LaPlante)
Living and Growing: Your story matters

Have you ever noticed on social media how most posts seem glamorous?… Continue reading

People gather for “Our Cultural Landscape,” Sealaska Heritage Institute’s culturally responsive education conference. (Sealaska Heritage Institute photo)
Neighbors briefs

SHI to offer pre-conferences on Native literature, artful teaching Sealaska Heritage Institute… Continue reading

Neighbors: Letters of thanks

Thanks to Juneau Community Foundation and CBJ for supporting elders On behalf… Continue reading

(Photo by Maxim Gibson)
Living and Growing: The silence of God and the language of creation

“There is one God who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ His Son,… Continue reading

Tari Stage-Harvey is the pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. (Photo courtesy of Tari Stage-Harvey)
Living and Growing: Mixtape for the nation

The world would be a little more beautiful if we still shared… Continue reading

Neighbors: Letters of thanks

Thanks for Challenge Grant to help arboretum project The Friends of the… Continue reading

Sockeye salmon in a red chile sauce, ready to serve. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: Sockeye salmon in a red chile sauce

Every summer I look forward to finding fresh sockeye salmon for sale… Continue reading

Participants in a junior naturalist program hosted by Jensen-Olson Arboretum walk along a beach. (City and Borough of Juneau photo)
Neighbors briefs

Registration for arboretum junior naturalist program opens July 8 Friends of the… Continue reading

Gene Tagaban, a Juneau resident, ends his story and joins with the Raven spirit for one final dance during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., between June 26 and July 1. (Photo by Maria James)
Neighbors: Tlingit storyteller Gene Tagaban participates in Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted its Smithsonian Folklife Festival, with… Continue reading

Page Bridges of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Page Bridges)
Living and Growing: Not a single bug

I just read a great shocking and informative article about our treatment… Continue reading