For the first time, scientists have discovered a “space hurricane” that swirled over the North Pole, in Earth’s upper atmosphere, for eight hours. These hurricanes, which “rained” electrons, are known to occur in Earth’s lower atmosphere. They had never been detected earlier in the upper atmosphere.
The space hurricane was detected on August 20, 2014. The phenomenon was noticed during a retrospective analysis led by the researchers at the Shandong University in China. The findings were published in Nature Communications in February this year.
A team of scientists from China, the USA, Norway and the UK used observations made by four DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellites and a 3D magnetosphere modelling to produce an image of the space hurricane.
Scientists said the hurricane detected over the North Pole consisted of plasma with multiple spiral arms. It was spinning in an anticlockwise direction and lasted almost 8 hours before gradually breaking down, Science Alert reported.
The hurricane extended to a diameter of 1,000 kilometres (621 miles). “It reached from 110 kilometres to 860 kilometres in altitude… swirling in an anticlockwise direction at speeds up to 2,100 metres per second (6,900 feet per second). The centre, however, was almost still, just like in hurricanes at lower altitudes,” the report said.
The discovery suggests that space hurricanes could be a common planetary phenomenon.
WHAT IS A ‘SPACE HURRICANE’?
A ‘space hurricane’ is a swirling mass of plasma. It rains electrons instead of water.
Hurricanes often cause loss of life and property through high winds and flooding resulting from the coastal storm surge of the ocean and the torrential rains.
They are characterised by a low-pressure centre (hurricane eye), strong winds and flow shears, and a spiral arrangement of towering clouds with heavy rains.
DIFFERENT FROM EARTH’S HURRICANES
Unlike other hurricanes, a space hurricane rains electrons into the ionosphere, causing a stunning effect: a huge, cyclone-shaped glowing green aurora below the hurricane.
The aurora at Earth’s higher latitudes was produced as charged particles pour into the ionosphere from the solar wind. However, scientists found that the solar conditions at the time of the hurricane over the North Pole were relatively quiet.
“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,” said space environment physicist Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading in the UK.
Suggesting that such storms might be common, Lockwood said, “Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomenon.”
HOW WOULD THE STUDY HELP SCIENTISTS?
According to Professor Qing-He Zhang, lead author of the research at Shandong University, the study of space hurricane will help in understanding important space weather effects such as satellite drag, disturbances in high frequency (HF) radio communications, and errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation and communication systems better.
WERE THESE SPACE HURRICANES DETECTED ON ANY OTHER PLANET?
In space, astronomers have spotted hurricanes on Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, which are similar to terrestrial hurricanes in the low atmosphere.
There are also solar gases swirling in monstrous formations deep within the sun’s atmosphere, called solar tornadoes.
However, space hurricanes had not been reported in the upper atmosphere of the planets in our heliosphere, which a vast bubble-like space cavity formed by the sun.
Source: India Today