For the first time, a hurricane has been detected in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. In 2014, the satellites recorded a huge swirl of plasma spreading into the magnetosphere that lasted for hours before dispersing.
Although we’ve never seen anything like this before, its detection suggests that space hurricanes, as they are known, could be a common planetary phenomenon.
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes existed, so proving this with such an amazing observation is incredible,” said space environment physicist Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading in the UK.
Hurricanes in Earth’s lower atmosphere are common: powerful revolving weather systems around a relatively calm center, accompanied by strong winds and torrential rains that can cause large amounts of damage in a very short time.
They are not uncommon on other bodies, either: Jupiter and Saturn, in particular, are extremely turbulent places, not to mention turbulent plasma tornadoes deep in the Sun’s atmosphere.
Space hurricanes, the new work reveals, are no different than their lower-atmosphere cousins.
The detections were made on August 20, 2014, and revealed during a retrospective analysis led by Shandong University in China. According to the data, the hurricane appeared over the North Pole, extending to a diameter of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).
It reached 110 kilometers at an altitude of 860 kilometers and consisted of plasma with multiple spiral arms, rotating counterclockwise at speeds of up to 2,100 meters per second (6,900 feet per second). The center, however, was almost still, as in hurricanes at lower altitudes.
However, unlike other hurricanes, the space hurricane rained electrons into the ionosphere. This had a surprising effect: a huge cyclone-shaped aurora below the hurricane. The whole thing lasted almost eight hours, depositing large amounts of energy and momentum in the ionosphere.
Otherwise, conditions were quiet, which posed a mystery. A shower of charged particles into the ionosphere from the solar wind is what generally produces bright green auroras at Earth’s highest latitudes, but solar conditions at the time were relatively calm. So the team turned to modeling to determine what caused the plasma riot.
“Tropical storms are associated with enormous amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by an unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles to Earth’s upper atmosphere,” Lockwood explained.
We know that reconnecting magnetic field lines can transfer energy from the solar wind to the magnetosphere and ionosphere, so the team modeled this process and discovered that a reconnected interplanetary magnetic field can produce the characteristics they observed in the space hurricane. even when the solar wind is low. . In fact, the low solar wind could be the key, as it allows for more efficient magnetic reconnection.
It also means that such storms can be quite common.
“Magnetic and plasma fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest that space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomenon,” Lockwood said.
There are implications for Earth too. Knowing that auroras can be the product of space hurricanes, and what these auroras look like, could help us identify other similar storms in the future.
It also shows that even when geomagnetic conditions are relatively calm, space can cause extreme weather that can affect life on Earth and the skies above it.
“This study suggests that local intense geomagnetic disturbances and energy deposits still exist that are comparable to those of super storms. This will update our understanding of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling process in extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions,” said the space physicist. and the first author, Qing-He Zhang of Shandong University.
“In addition, the space hurricane will cause significant effects on space weather, such as increased resistance from satellites, disruptions to high-frequency radio communications, and increased errors in the location of the radar over the horizon, navigation by satellite and communication systems “.
The research has been published in Communications from nature.