An international team of researchers has reported the discovery of a new type of space weather phenomenon. High above the polar regions of our planet, plasma moves about, looking like a typhoon or a hurricane. The discovery of these space hurricanes is published in Nature Communications.
Hurricanes are common features on the planets of the solar system. As particles rise or fall, a zone of low pressures can form – around those, hurricanes arise. Tropical storms in the Earth’s lower atmosphere happen in this way. It turns out that the electrically charged particles in the ionosphere can behave in the same manner.
In the new paper, the researchers re-analyzed data from August 2014. The new work showed the existence of a swirling plasma structure 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) across, located hundreds of kilometers above the North Pole. The space hurricanes accelerate electrons down towards Earth, enhancing the northern lights in the region, which also take a cyclonic shape.
This peculiar aurora happened on August 20, 2014, lasting for about eight hours. The event took place during a period of extremely calm geomagnetic conditions, and much closer to the magnetic North Pole than the average northern lights.
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” co-author Professor Mike Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading, said in a statement.
“Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena.”
Data from multiple satellites, as well as simulations, suggest that quiet periods around the Earth’s magnetosphere are likely to lead to these events. When the magnetic field lines of our planet are not disturbed, they create a funneling structure right above the magnetic pole, funneling electric particles from the solar wind right into the upper and middle atmosphere.
This is an important insight. Our telecommunication network is affected by space weather in two ways. Events such as major solar storms can disrupt satellites and the like. At the other end of the scale, we have the continuous flux of particles from the Sun that slowly but surely wears down our technology. The findings show that we should not underestimate space weather, even during calmer periods.