Researchers recently found that a few years back, they “slept” through a hurricane. On analyzing weather satellite data from 2014, scientists discovered evidence of a hurricane from space that pushed plasma toward Earth’s upper atmosphere. Though these events are invisible to the eye, the evidence reveals that they’re not uncommon. Understanding more about them could help to protect satellite and communications systems from disturbance and preserve radar and GPS output for life below on the planet’s surface.
A Swirling Vortex of Plasma
Satellites in orbit around the planet gather immense amounts of data on environmental and climate activity. A recent publication in Nature Communications explains how the first hurricane from space was discovered through analysis of data gathered back in August 2014.
The research team looked at recently released files containing measurements taken by four satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. From their analysis, the scientists created a 3D image that showed the hurricane from space forming features similar to what we’re familiar with in Earth’s lower atmosphere. A press release in Science Daily describes it as a gigantic spiral of plasma, with its arms swirling counterclockwise above the North Pole.
The space hurricane, complete with a calm eye at its center, saw plasma whipping around at 4,700 miles per hour (or 2,100 meters per second). Researchers tracked its progress over eight hours of activity as the storm dumped a steady stream of electron rain across the ionosphere into Earth’s upper atmosphere.
What Makes a Space Hurricane?
On Earth, hurricanes are created by differences in air pressure. Physics World describes how warm, moist air rises over the oceans to create areas of low pressure. This in turn sucks in air from higher-pressure areas, creating strong winds and bringing clouds to dump massive amounts of rain. The energy unleashed during a storm is huge, and there’s usually a lot of damage.
With hurricanes from space, there’s also a lot of energy involved, but the storm itself is not caused by pressure gradients. In the vacuum of space, researchers thought that solar wind and geomagnetic turbulence were probably the answer. However, upon checking the satellite data, the scientists found that these were relatively quiet.
Thinking this unusual, the research team looked for another solution, using modeling to run various scenarios. What they found was quite a surprise. Instead of an outburst from the sun pushing plasma winds onto the Earth’s magnetosphere, the model showed that magnetic field lines were responsible for the hurricane. Incoming solar winds interacted with the magnetic field over the North Pole to whip the plasma stream into the vortex that the satellites detected.
As Astronomy explains, the alignment between the Sun’s magnetic field and the Earth’s facilitated electron flow. Although similar to the convection currents generated during hurricane formation, the energy driving the process came from the Sun above rather than warmth in the oceans below.
Smithsonian Magazine notes that space hurricanes are probably much more common than expected since conditions like this exist around numerous other planets.
Space Weather and Life on Earth
Plasma is the fourth state of matter. University College London describes it as gas that is so superheated that the atoms split apart to release electrons. Usually, plasma is invisible unless particles of the ionizing radiation fall into the atmosphere to form an aurora borealis. The researcher team found evidence that an aurora formed above the storm.
The magnetosphere creates a protective layer that protects Earth against plasma from the solar wind. Turbulence develops at the interface as it deflects the flow of electrons. However, ionization does more than create a stunning light show. Space weather such as this can also impact radio communications and satellite transmissions, for example, leading to satellite lag and decreasing the accuracy of beyond-the-horizon radar. As Science Alert notes, this weather could even knock out the satellites we rely on for a lot of day-to-day activities.
While you may not see a hurricane from space, you may have experienced them on the surface as communications glitches, radio blackouts and GPS confusion. The more we understand about space weather, the better scientists can protect our communications systems in the future, as well as spot space weather on other planets.
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