Space-nado: an extreme weather event in space
Katie Archbold outlines the remarkable discovery made by scientists that confirms for the first time the existence of a space hurricane, raining electrons above Earth.
We’ve all heard of extreme weather: storms, snow blizzards, droughts – all are becoming more regular occurrences. However, for the first time a massive hurricane in space swirling hundreds of kilometres above the North Pole, has been observed. Should we be concerned? The simple answer is yes. Our ever-increasing reliance on satellite technology means the phenomenon of space weather could have a huge impact on us and our lifestyles.
Researchers at the University of Reading and China’s Shandong University retrospectively analysed satellite observations made in August 2014 and discovered this great mass of plasma, 1000 km-wide swirling within the Earth’s ionosphere. A 3D image was created by the team, highlighting the hurricane’s characteristics, which were similar compared to those found in our lower atmosphere. Spinning in an anticlockwise direction for almost eight hours, the hurricane featured a quiet centre, spiral arms, wide circulation but, most strikingly, it rained electrons rather than water.
Researchers at the University of Reading and China’s Shandong University […] discovered this great mass of plasma, 1000 km-wide swirling within the Earth’s ionosphere.
Professor Mike Lockwood, space weather scientist at the University of Reading, stressed the importance of this discovery, stating: “Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible.”
He goes on to explain that: “Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by an unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.”
Scientists expect space hurricanes could also exist on planets like Mars, Jupiter and Saturn where electrons and ions are easily ‘pushed and pulled’ by geomagnetic forces.
Research into space weather has been accelerating since the 1950s and for good reason – the advancement of satellite technology, which now may be susceptible to such space weather events.
Scientists discovered the hurricane created a rapid energy transfer tunnel from space to Earth’s thermosphere which may explain issues like increased satellite drag and disturbances to radio communications that we sometimes encounter. A recent study by the European Space Agency approximated that today, for Europe, the possible socio-economic impact from just one extreme space weather event could cost about €15 billion.
For Europe, the possible socio-economic impact from just one extreme space weather event could cost about €15 billion.
Everything from communications, media, navigation and weather prediction relies on satellite technology and our dependence on satellites is only going to increase in the future. Unexpected space weather therefore poses a great risk to us all and hence, research is currently focussed on understanding and mitigating these dangers.