Space hurricane of plasma spotted above Earth’s North Pole - Beyond The World
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Space hurricane of plasma spotted above Earth’s North Pole

This large, rotating pattern of plasma roiled the ionosphere — similar to its surface counterparts.

The morning of August 20, 2014, in the Earth’s ionosphere, was quiet. The solar wind was calm and slack, and the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field was constant, making space weather improbable.

The ionosphere suddenly whipped itself into a fury hundreds of miles above the North Pole, creating a giant space hurricane 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) wide – a cyclone of plasma swirling over Earth for eight hours.

Military weather satellites in the United States captured the phenomenon in real time. However, it was only recently discovered in archival data by a team led by experts at China’s Shandong University.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” said co-author Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading in a press release.

More than a metaphor

The name “space hurricane” isn’t just a fancy term; the physics of how it evolved are similar to how “normal” hurricanes gather and focus energy in the lower atmosphere. This space storm, like its atmospheric counterparts, was caused by a low-pressure area that caused fast convection.

That convective process occurs on Earth from below: heat from warm ocean waters drives evaporation and rising air, pouring energy into the atmosphere, which is focused by inrushing wind.

In space, however, that convective energy originates from above, thanks to the Earth’s and Sun’s magnetic fields interacting and shearing across one another.

As it reaches out into the solar system, the Sun’s magnetic field has a wavy structure, which means it can be aligned northward or southerly depending on where Earth is in it. The portion of the Sun’s magnetic field around Earth occurred to be aligned northward on that August day in 2014. That means it doesn’t properly link to the Earth’s magnetic field, which is also aligned northward – the field lines reject each other, resulting in calm space weather conditions. However, these conditions can occasionally cause an aurora at the poles, where electrons rain downward and electric current flows up, just like the convection at the heart of a hurricane.

The surrounding plasma began to flow around the core point of convection, generating “rain bands” of electrons that created spiral auroral arms around a stable eye. A corkscrew-shaped magnetic field at the heart of the system channelled magnetic energy from space into Earth’s ionosphere for eight hours before fading.

A worldwide phenomena

Though space hurricanes do not have the same catastrophic impact as their atmospheric counterparts, the flood of energetic particles such storms bring to the ionosphere could interfere with satellites, possibly changing their orbits by adding drag.

Because this storm formed during a very quiet period of geomagnetic activity, the researchers believe space hurricanes are more often than previously imagined.  “Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena,” said Lockwood.

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