The Coriolis effect is a mechanical principle demonstrating that, on a rotating solid body, an inertial force acts on the body at right angles to its direction of motion. The Coriolis effect (also called the Coriolis force) is based on the classic laws of motion introduced to the world by Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727). A rotating body not only moves according to Newtonian motion, but it is also acted on by an inertial force. If that body is rotating in a counterclockwise direction, the inertial force will deflect the body to its own right with respect to the observer. If the body is rotating in a clockwise motion, the iner-tial force acts to the left of the direction of motion.
Behavior of objects under the Coriolis effect
Within its rotating coordinate system, the object acted on by the Coriolis effect appears to deflect off of its path of motion. This deflection is not real. It only appears to happen because the coordinate system that establishes a frame of reference for the observer is also rotating. The Coriolis effect is, therefore, linked to the motion of the object, the motion of Earth (the rotating frame of reference), and the latitude on Earth at which the object is moving.
Several illustrations of the Coriolis effect are described below. First, imagine that a cannon on the equator is fired to the north. The cannon ball will land farther to the right than its target because the cannon ball moving on the equator moves faster to the east than its target, which started out farther to the north. If the cannon is fired from the North Pole at a target toward the equator, the cannon ball will again land to the right of its true path because the target area has moved farther to the east faster. In other words, in the Northern Hemisphere, the cannon ball will always land to the right of its target no matter where it is fired relative to the target. In the Southern Hemisphere, the effect is reversed and the cannon ball will always fall to the left of its target.
The second involves an experiment demonstrating the Coriolis effect. Imagine a phonograph record on a turntable. The center hole is the North Pole, and the rim of the record is the equator. As the record turns on the table, a chalk line drawn across the record from the hole to the rim toward the person drawing the line will curve to the right.
A third example uses a carousel or merry-go-round to illustrate the Coriolis effect. As the carousel goes around, a rider on the carousel stands at the center (the North Pole) and throws the ball to someone standing on the ground beyond the edge of the carousel. From the ground, the ball appears to travel in a straight line, but, to the rider, the ball seems to travel in a curve.
Significance of the Coriolis effect
The Coriolis effect is important to virtually all sciences that relate to Earth and planetary motions. It is critical to the dynamics of the atmosphere including the motions of winds and storms. In oceanography, it explains the motions of oceanic currents. Ballistics encompasses not only weapons but the motions of aircraft including launching and orbiting spacecraft. In the mechanics of machinery, rotating motors and other electrical devices generate instantaneous voltages (called Christoffel voltages) that must be calculated relative to
the rotation. In astronomy, astrophysics, and studies of the dynamics of the stars, the Coriolis effect explains the rotation of sunspots and the true directions of light seen on Earth from the stars.
The Coriolis effect does not have any relationship to two other effects. For many years, geologists have used the Coriolis effect to suggest that right banks of rivers will tend to erode more rapidly than left banks in the Northern Hemisphere; this has been proven not to be true. Also, many people claim water in their sinks and toilet bowls drains away in counterclockwise or clockwise motion depending on whether the drain is located in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. The Coriolis effect acts only on fluids over great distances or long lengths of time, so the motion of draining water is due to the shape of the drain not to the pseudoforce of the Coriolis effect.
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