Hurricane in Space
Here at MetMatters, we are keen to think about more than just the things happening in places where we normally live and breathe. The discovery of a ‘Space Hurricane’ by a team including Professor Michael Lockwood of Reading University, has inspired us to begin an occasional series of articles about events in those more tenuous and distant parts of Earth’s atmosphere…..or even further afield!
The existence of the space hurricane was discovered after researchers re-analysed some satellite observations from 2014. It is the first time that such a phenomenon has been confirmed in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. What they found was a swirling mass of plasma covering an area around 1000km in diameter, several hundred kilometres above the North Pole, in the ionosphere and magnetosphere. It transferred solar wind/magnetosphere energy and momentum into the Earth’s ionosphere by way of a ‘precipitation’ made up of electrons instead of the heavy rain associated with surface hurricanes. One result of this flow of energy was a cyclone-shaped aurora near the hurricane’s centre. The storm was observed spinning anticlockwise during a period of generally low solar and geomagnetic activity. For this reason, it seems plausible that space hurricanes might be more common than was thought. You can read more about this topic by clicking here.
Source: Zhang, QH., Zhang, YL., Wang, C. et al. A space hurricane over the Earth’s polar ionosphere. Nat Commun 12, 1207 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21459-y
- Plasma: a mass or ’soup’ of charged particles
- Solar Wind: a rapidly moving flow of plasma expanding outwards from the sun’s corona (outer layer)
- Ionosphere: region of Earth’s atmosphere extending 80-1000km from the surface where mainly only charged particles exist
- Magnetosphere: the region where the Earth’s magnetic field controls the motion of charged particles. In so doing, it protects Earth’s inhabitants from cosmic particles and solar radiation which would otherwise bombard them; an essential job for life to thrive
Future articles will include a Guest Blog, authored by Professor Lockwood, in which he will describe some of the features of his research in the field of space weather. In addition, we will be taking a look at a variety of other extra-terrestrial phenomena, such as hurricanes on other planets and tornados on the sun.