Utility and Limits of Dowsing Rods to Chart the Subsurface
Some days ago, I read an interesting article by John Janks on dowsing in Frontier Perspectives, a journal published by the Center for Frontier Sciences. Looking up the term, we find that dowsing is the use of a divining rod or similar instrument that allows you to locate certain energy anomalies that are not normally visible and that not everyone can feel. It is quite commonly used to locate water, especially when people want to dig a well. Oil companies have also employed dowsers to locate oil for drilling - a fact that is less well known.
Sean Burkey dowsing - Image source: BBC
What I liked about John Janks' research is its no-nonsense approach and the simple explanation of how, in all likelihood, dowsing works. According to the author, there is no need to have special abilities to use dowsing rods. Practically anyone can go out and try this. If you do, or if you are a dowser and have experience you'd like to share, please don't hesitate to leave a comment at the end of the article.
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Utility and Limits of Dowsing Rods to Chart the Subsurface
This paper is an analysis of the phenomenon known as "dowsing" using hand-held wires. "Dowsing rods" move because of large changes in electrical conductivity. Simple tests were performed on buried objects ranging from a few centimeters in diameter to volumes of three liters, and composed of highly conductive metals or highly resistive ceramics and plastics. The distance of first detection was about five meters for metallic pint cans to 20+ meters for three-gallon plastic containers. The wires move in a predictable fashion. Blind tests were performed to rule out subconscious movements by the investigators. The presence or absence of water is incidental. Significant changes in electrical conductivity may also be created in the earth by fractures, weathered horizons, and changes in grain size and composition. Coincidentally, these phenomena create higher porosity and permeability, favorable for water production. The use of wire rods has potential applications to military and civilian landmine and IED detection, engineering and archeology.
Dowsing rods*, two hand-held metal wires, have been the subject of controversy for centuries. Advocates use them in the search for water, but others have claimed success finding metals, minerals, and oil and gas deposits. "Dowsing" is classified as a pseudoscience because the practice has never been verified via experimentation or supported by an adequate scientific hypothesis. Previous evaluations have shown that dowsing for water is little better than random chance1. However, there have been published successes, especially in parts of the world desperately in need of fresh water2.
There are a variety of techniques in use: metal rods, wooden sticks, pendulums, even tracing over maps3. There is no consensus as to why dowsing rods move. Most scientific papers scoff at the method, dismissing that the rods move at all (other than by the human subconscious). This paper proposes that dowsing rods obey the laws of physics and move according to the changes in electrical conductivity.
*Two hand-held metallic wires are almost universally referred to as "dowsing rods" regardless of the application. We will follow that convention.
The experiment was designed to investigate how dowsing rods move with changes in electrical conductivity. It required two phases:
(1) measuring dowsing rod movement with objects of known size and composition, and
(2) blind tests that would rule out any effects of the human subconscious.
The native soils in Greater Houston Area consist mostly of soils containing fine sand, silt and clay. The water table is at most a few meters below the surface. We performed the test in two regional soils, the Clodine and Gessner Series4. For the tests, we chose a 50 by 50-meter section where no rod movement was detected when an investigator walked the area at two-meter intervals.
Three metallic containers (US pint, quart and gallon cans), a three-gallon plastic container, and a 20 cm ceramic disk (those "Bott Dots" you drive over when straying into another lane) were used as the test objects. Each item was analyzed individually. The investigator walked the area as before, and noted rod movement patterns and distances for each buried object. The information included when the wires first moved, the angle of each, and any information about the shape of the object.
Blind testing was necessary to rule out subconscious influences on the part of the investigator. Without these tests, any rod movement could be dismissed on this basis alone. We performed tests under three separate circumstances:
(1) 50 by 50-meter section of forested land,One investigator buried the test object on a day when the other was not present. The investigator took great pains to make sure there were no visual clues. After waiting 24 hours (to ensure even soil dryness) the second investigator, alone, examined the study area using the rod positions to locate buried object. This test method is probably a good simulation of the placing and recovery of buried objects like landmines or IED's.
(2) 50 by 50-meter section of scrub and grassland, and
(3) a meandering 70-meter sand trail (about two meters wide) through a forested area.
In the first phase of the investigation we found that dowsing rods moved in a predictable pattern. But, unless the investigator approached the object directly, the dowsing rods did not move equally. In our experiments, the rod in the hand farthest from the buried object moved the most, usually at an angle that pointed in the direction of the object (Figure 1).
By marking the direction that the wires moved the investigator was able to create a map showing the object's location. One example is shown in Figure 2.
Moving from right-to-left, an investigator would find no rod movement until he reached the traverse at seven meters. Since the investigator did not know where the object was buried he would only see that one rod would move at right angles pointing towards the center of the object. The rod in the other hand would remain straight ahead, creating a "├"-shape. As he continued walking along the lines at 6, 5 and 4 meters, he observed that the area where the rods moved expanded. Once on the left side of the buried object, the investigator would find that the rod movement patterns mirrored those of the right. The area affected depends on the size and geometry of the buried object. The pint-sized can was detected at five meters while a gallon-sized one at 20 or more meters. There is a direct relationship between the size of the object and the distance where the wires first moved:
U.S. Pint (metal) 5 meters Traffic Marker (ceramic) 5 meters U.S. Quart (metal) 10 meters U.S. Gallon (metal) 15 to 20 meters 3-Gallon Container (plastic) 20+ meters
We found that ground cover had little, if any effect on the rod movement. We tested grassy, shrub and tree-covered land, wet and dry soils, and even objects buried beneath used tires and small trash piles. In all cases the size and shape of the area defined by the rods' movements were the same.
Why dowsing rods move has been attributed to everything from psychic powers to natural physical forces. Earlier in the 20th Century physical scientists such as Maby and Franklin5 and Tromp6 attempted to explain dowsing rod movement in terms of natural forces, especially electromagnetic fields. Maby and Franklin believed that physical forces acted upon one's forearm muscles to produce a "dowsing reflex" while Tromp considered that multiple environmental factors (sun radiation, ground cover, body movements, etc.) were also able to make the rods move. Our hypothesis is much simpler: hand-held dowsing rods respond to large changes in electrical conductivity, and as such, the electrical properties of the earth are the dominant control.
Complex Electrical Forces
Electricity in the earth is governed by Ohm's Law:
I = E
1. Electrical Conductivity, σ, is a physical property of matter, one of the widest ranges known to science (about 25 orders of magnitude). Natural soil and sediment columns are defined by ranges only since factors such as porosity, water and clay content, layering and composition vary from location to location:
Soils and their electrical conductivity14
Sandy dry 10-4
Sandy wet 10-3
Loamy dry 10-4
Loamy wet 10-2
Clayey dry 10-4
Clayey wet 10-2
Materials and their electrical conductivity12
Pure water 10-4 to 10-2
Ground water 10-2 to 101
Dry Sand 10-7 to 10-2
Water-saturated sand 10-4 to 10-2
Clay (saturated) 10-1 to 100
Granite (dry) 10-8 to 10-6
Granite (wet) 10-3
Fused Quartz15 10-20
Iron, coper, aluminium15 107 to 108
Platics and polymers15 10-12 to 10-17
Potting and casting ceramics15 10-9 to 10-11
Rock salt 10-13
Data are from Telford, et al12, unless noted15
2. Electric Field Intensity, E, is complex because the frequencies in a particular section of the earth at any time are a function of the magnetosphere, atmospherics and man-made radio and microwaves. A user standing on the earth's surface encounters frequencies ranging from less than 1 Hz to the GHz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. For reference, the corresponding wavelengths are 100,000 km (1Hz and lower) to 1 mm (300GHz). A wavelength of 100,000 km is 62,100 miles or about ten times the diameter of the earth.
3. Conducted Current Density, I, is the vector quantity of current passing through a unit area of an equipotential surface; it is the product of the electrical conductivity and the electric field intensity. This density changes markedly as electric currents flow towards highly conductive materials and around highly resistive ones. The rods seek an equilibrium position with I.
Barlow7 first identified natural electric currents. They are now known to cover land and sea and are attributed to changes in the earth's magnetic field8. Global thunderstorm activity creates atmospherics [or "spherics"] ranging from 1Hz to 100 kHz, while man-made frequencies range from 9 kHz to 300 GHz. Changes in space weather phenomena have long been known to create havoc with communications and infrastructure, such as pipelines and railroads9. Telluric current studies are not new, but they are mostly centered on geology, often kilometers deep into the earth. Studies range from shallow subsurface to the mantle-crust boundary and beyond10.
It is difficult to generate serious investigations into why (or if) dowsing rods actually move. Almost universally, the scientific community rejects vague or poorly defined explanations that cannot be tested - and rightly so. Tromp5 was the first to relate dowsing rod movement to changes in electrical conductivity. His exhaustive study concluded that many variables could affect whether or not dowsing rods move: the rod itself, how it is held, nearby vegetation, sun radiation, and body movements among others. This study suggests that rod movement is predominantly controlled by changes in electrical conductivity. Experience has shown that the wire held in the hand farthest from the buried object always moves more than the one held in the hand nearer to the buried object. This phenomenon may in part be explained by some of Tromp's work on dowsing rod movement in human hands.
Gradual changes in conductivity do not generate a conducted current gradient with enough force to make the rods move. Such a distribution of these small changes, no more than a few orders of magnitude are illustrated in Figure 3.
A map the electrical conductivity distribution in the study area. The relatively small changes (two orders of magnitude) over a large area are not sufficient to generate enough force to make dowsing rods move.
Most soils are only intermediate conductors, with conductivities ranging from 10-4 to 10-2 mho-m (Table 2).
However, when a highly conductive metal object is buried in this soil large gradients are established as electric currents preferentially move towards the higher conductivity (Figure 4).
A conceptual model of the area shown in figure 3 after a metallic object with an electrical conductivity of 108 mho-m is buried in the soil. The difference in electrical conductivity between the metallic can and the soil in which it is buried is about twelve orders of magnitude. Three conducted current flow lines are illustrated preferentially moving towards the highly conductive metal.
In this example a metallic can with an electrical conductivity of 108 mho-m is buried in a wet loamy soil of 10-2 mho-m, generating a difference of about 100 billion mho-m. Thus over a small area, the conducted current density rises sharply (Figure 5).
Figure 5. A 3-D model showing how conducted electrical current densities would change in the presence of a highly conductive metallic container. Electric currents would preferentially flow faster through the metal, creating a large gradient in the conducted current. The z-axis is shown in orders of magnitude.
The dowsing rods align themselves perpendicular to the equipotential surface. The distance that the user first detects rod movement is proportional to the size and geometry of the object. The larger the container the more electrical currents will preferentially move to the higher conductivities, essentially acting as a current sink or a "short" in the system. This is precisely the reason geophysical resistivity studies must avoid fences and pipelines. Plastics, ceramics and other highly resistive materials force the currents around the object, concentrating them along the object's margins.
While this test was limited to the materials already described, it is likely that natural features create significant, if smaller, changes in conductivity: weathered horizons, fractures, grain size and composition contrasts. Similarly they may also create enough force to make the wires move. The dowsing rods respond to any large change in conductivity be it buried metallic objects, resistive ceramics and plastics or natural features. And they're not picky.
Parameters that are constantly changing and difficult to measure are time-consuming and require expensive equipment. The instability and variations in telluric currents and magnetotelluric fields is one reason most geophysical methods choose instead to negate them11 or select specific frequencies12. However, expensive methods and equipment are precisely what most of the world's population does not have available in its search for clean water. Hence, the attractiveness of simple dowsing rods.
Electrical Properties and Successful Dowsing
Because movement of dowsing rods is a function of electrical conductivity, they offer hope for finding potable water sources in countries too poor to afford highly expensive geophysical methods. It is not just buried metal or plastic containers that can create these changes in the current density. Faults, fractures, weathered horizons, and abrupt changes in grain size do so as well. Coincidentally, these conditions also generate porosity and permeability - areas that would have a marked increase in water production. Betz2 noted that water flowed only in those areas highly fractured or weathered, and that resistivity measurements changed significantly over the productive well sites.
Thus, for example, a series of fractures in granite bedrock may be sufficient to make the wires move, but whether a well drilled into them is productive or not depends upon something not measured by the dowsing rods - the presence of a water source. When a source of water fills those fractures a dowser will find success. With no source of water, the dowser will fail. Tromp5 recognized this and sought to use his dowsing methods in conjunction with standard geological methods. In other words, the dowsing wires locate potential zones where water could be found, not its presence. This is the exact principle used in oil and gas exploration - a high-technology industry with a success rate of 35% (1973-2003)16.
Hand-held dowsing rods have applications beyond looking for potable water. The ability of rods to anticipate buried objects may be useful for both military and civilian groups that deal with landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's). The technique here would be of significant value because (1) IED's and landmines are made of either highly conductive metals or highly resistive plastic and (2) high-tech equipment is not commonly available. Almost any material firm enough to be bent into the "L"-shape of a dowsing rod can be used, thus making them easily available to anyone. In a field situation, they could also be used to locate pipelines, sewers, and other buried structures (engineering). In fields like archeology they could be used to locate artifacts, buried walls and burial sites.
"Dowsing rods" have been a source of controversy for centuries. Our study suggests that the rods move because of large changes in electrical conductivity not the presence of water. This was tested by burying highly conductive (metal) and highly resistive (plastic and ceramic) in local soils. These objects ranged from one pint to three gallons made of metals, plastic and ceramic. Field tests show that the wires move from five (metallic pint) to 20+ meters (three-gallon plastic) when approaching these buried objects. Certain geologic conditions also create considerable electrical gradients: fractures, weathered zones and changes in grain size. All, coincidentally, are favorable for successful water production. Because they are inexpensive the rods may be useful for a variety of military and civilian applications, such as landmine and IED detection, where high-tech equipment is not available.
1. Vogt, E. Z. and Hyman, R. (1979). Water Witching U.S.A. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 260 p.
2. Betz, H. D. (1995). "Unconventional Water Detection: Field Test of the Dowsing Technique in Dry Zones, Parts I & II." Journal of Scientific Exploration, 9(1, 2).
3. Bird, C. (2000). The Divining Hand: The 500-Year Old Mystery of Dowsing. Whitford Press, West Chester, PA (US), 372 p.
4. Soil Survey Staff (2004). Official Soil Series Descriptions. Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Dept. Agriculture [online].
5. Tromp, S. W. (1949). Psychical Physics: A Scientific Analysis of Dowsing. Elsevier, NY, NY.
6. Maby, J.C. and Franklin, T. B. (1939). The Physics of the Divining Rod. G. Bell & Sons. London.
7. Barlow, W. H. (1849). "On the Spontaneous Electrical Currents Observed in the Wire of the Electric Telegraph." Phil. Trans. R. Soc., 61A.
8. Sheriff, R. E. (1989). Geophysical Methods. Prentice-Hall Publishing, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 605 p.
9. Lanzerotti, L. J. (2001) "Space Weather Effects on Communications," in Daglis, I. A. (ed.), Space Storms and Space Weather Hazards. Kluwer Academic Press, The Netherlands, 313 - 334.
10. Lanzerotti, L. J. and Gregori G. P. (1986). "Telluric Currents: The Natural Environment and Interactions with Man-made Systems." in The Earth's Electrical Environment. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 232-257.
11. Morrison, F., Gasperikova, E., and Washbourne, J. (2004). The Berkeley Course in Applied Geophysics.
12. Telford, W. M., Geldart, L. P., Sheriff, R. E. and Keys, D. A. (1976). Applied Geophysics. Cambridge University Press, NY, NY, 859 p.
13. Simmons, M.R. (2003). "Energy Technology Overview." Trends and Strategies for Funding E&P Technologies. Offshore Technology Conference, Houston, TX, May 5, 2003, 27 p.
14. Herz, N. and Garrison, E. G. (1998). Geological Methods for Archeology. Oxford University Press, NY, NY, 343 p.
15. Physical Properties Database (2006). www.Matweb.com
16. Simmons, M.R. (2003). "Energy Technology Overview." Offshore Technology Conference 2003 Technology Commercialization: Trends and Strategies for Funding E&P Technologies. Houston, TX. May 5, 2003. 27 p.
There are now 7 YouTube videos on the Dowsing Rod Empirical Experiments.
(Videos by John Janks)
(Summary and Introduction)
(Objects Buried Beneath Surface Clutter)
(Multiple Buried Objects)
(How it works - Ohm's Law)
(trip wires, pipelines, bricks)
See also a new (May 2010) article in the Journal of Borderland Research titled
"This paper is a summary of the empirical evidence we discovered while working on locating buried objects. Our object was to develop a scientifically based method for individuals to locate buried objects and aboveground tripwires. We used only a brass pair of rods, bent into the familiar "L" shape. The data consistently show repeatable patterns that depend upon the size and shape of the buried object. The objects used in the testing were made of metal, ceramic and plastic. Some objects were detected as far as 20 meters away, and above ground trip wires, some as thin as 1 mm in diameter were also located with relative ease. The patterns created by combinations of buried cord or wire attached to a circular or rectangle object were successfully charted using this method. When two buried were close enough to affect each other, we detected dowsing rod movement along the axis approximately 60+ meters. In an unanticipated discovery, we found a user remaining stationary could track the path of low flying aircraft. In all our experiments, the rod farthest from the source moved the most. We found that the presence or absence of water had no effect on the outcome. We believe that dowsing rods could be applicable to both military and humanitarian demining, and encourage active testing. While we did not have the tools or funding to study it, we believe that earth-born Telluric Currents are the most likely candidate for creating dowsing rod movement. Fourteen videos have been published on YouTube and their URLs are located in the appendix."
Added December 2010:
Video: No Link Between Dowsing Rods and Ideomotor Effect
The video is a demonstration that the ideomotor effect, an "explanation" by various theoreticians that the movement of dowsing rods is caused by involuntary muscle reactions of the operator, is merely a theory. The video shows
"A field experiment demonstrating that the Ideomotor Effect is not related to dowsing rod movement. Simple equipment, cardboard tubes, metal rods, and most importantly a 360 degree swivel. Over a buried pipeline the lower tube with dowsing rod moved freely while the upper remained unmoved. Attempts to turn the lower rod by turning the upper one were equally foiled by the swivel. Hand-held dowsing rods passed over the area, moved in the same manner and location."