Large Hadron Collider Is Being Warped By Gravitational Pull Of Rain And Snow

Even rain and snow has a gravitational field. Gabriela Tulian/Shutterstock

An intrepid researcher thinks that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, may also be the world’s largest rain meter. Minute gravitational forces generated by rainwater and snow are actually causing the ultra-sensitive device to change shape, and these changes could be used to study regional weather and hydrogeological changes.

“My hypothesis is that in winter there's a lot more water in the ground, and even snow sitting on the ground. So, basically, this mass pulls on the ring,” Rolf Hut, a researcher at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, told BBC News. “And when that extra mass melts away and evaporates away in summer, the ring stretches a bit.”

The LHC, the donut-shaped technological wonder that has been smashing particles together to reveal the secrets of the universe, is one of the most successful scientific endeavors in human history. Since the beginning of the year, more than 300 papers have been written by theoretical physicists using data gained from the epic device.

It seems that every single month, the team working with the 27-kilometer (16.8-mile) circumference ring have something remarkable to report. This month was no exception: In a slightly strange twist, they’ve noticed that the ring itself is changing shape.

The length of the particles’ orbit around the LHC is fixed and carefully monitored by the machine’s operators; even the slightest changes will cause the particles to veer off course. Just recently, the LHC began to notice minuscule changes in the orbital distance on a seasonal cycle.

Collision between lead ions with the ALICE component of the LHC. CERN

Although small length alterations can be explained by tidal forces generated by the gravitational pull of the Moon, this new warping effect didn’t seem to correlate with this. Researchers initially thought that the ring was expanding as it warmed in the summer and shrinking as it cooled in the winter – except that at depths of 175 meters (574 feet) beneath the surface, it was unlikely to experience seasons as life at the surface does.

Dr. Hut turned to the U.S.-German GRACE space mission, which uses a pair of satellites to detect small variations in gravity on Earth. They’ve noticed that when there isn’t much water on the ground above the LHC, in the summer especially, the LHC expands.

Gravimeters will need to be installed on the LHC itself in order to prove this theory, but if this is indeed true, extremely small fluctuations in its length could be used to measure changes in surface rainfall with extreme precision. As announced at the annual meeting of the European Geophysical Union (EGU) in Vienna, this would make the LHC the world’s largest rain gauge.

Dr. Hut is known by his colleagues as the “MacGyver scientist,” and rightly so: He’s spent his time coming up with rather curious new ways to measure Earth’s weather. At the 2014 EGU meeting, he unveiled a prototype umbrella, equipped with a sensor, which detects each raindrop that falls on it. Data on the rainfall is then sent via a Bluetooth-enabled phone to a computer server.

The LHC, clearly, is quite a step up from the umbrella idea. “I can make a rain gauge out of anything,” he told a crowd at this year’s EGU gathering.

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