3D illustration of how the space hurricane must have looked like back in 2014. Credit: Qing-He Zhang, Shandong University

Scientists Spot Space Hurricane For The First Time Ever

Until recently, hurricanes in the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere were considered impossible.

Scientists discovered a real hurricane that raged on the border of the atmosphere and space and was accompanied by a powerful aurora. Researchers have never observed anything like this before and have now called it a space hurricane.

Hurricanes normally occur in the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere – the troposphere. They originate over warm seas. When warm, moist air rises upward, a low-pressure area (eye of the storm) is created. Around it, air swirls in a spiral vortex. In this case, the wind speed can reach two hundred kilometers per hour. At the same time, clouds are abundantly formed, from which such a downpour pours that hurricanes often lead to floods.

In the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, at the very edge of space, this is impossible. There is very thin and dry air, and its temperature rises with height and does not fall. There are no conditions for the formation of vortices.

However, scientists still observed a real space hurricane. It had a diameter of almost a thousand kilometers and numerous spiral arms. The whirlwind lasted for almost eight hours. The funnel revolved around the northern magnetic pole of the planet, and instead of rain, accelerated electrons fell down. And each stream of air was effectively illuminated by the aurora.

The thing is that this hurricane was created by the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind.

Illustration A shows a schematic of the space hurricane in the northern polar ionosphere. Illustration B shows a schematic of the magnetosphere when it happened in 3D. Credit: Qing-He Zhang, Shandong University
Illustration A shows a schematic of the space hurricane in the northern polar ionosphere. Illustration B shows a schematic of the magnetosphere when it happened in 3D. Credit: Qing-He Zhang, Shandong University

The solar wind consists of charged particles (mainly protons and electrons). Our planet is constantly blown by the solar wind. From time to time, various clouds and seals are formed in it (this is one of the manifestations of solar activity).

They have their own magnetic field, which is superimposed on the planet’s geomagnetic field and disturbs it. The atmosphere cannot stay away from this disgrace, since at such a height the air consists of ions, and they are sensitive to the magnetic field.

As a result of such an event, a system was formed that is very reminiscent of a classic hurricane. Instead of air heated by the sun, a stream of ions rose upward, creating its own magnetic field. This field swirled the surrounding ionized gas into a powerful counterclockwise vortex. In the center of the vortex, a kind of eye of the storm was formed, where there was no horizontal airflow.

By the way, this space hurricane happened back in 2014. But they discovered it only now, processing archived data from four DMSP satellites.

This discovery allows for a fresh look at the impact of the Sun on the planet’s atmosphere. The cosmic hurricane turned out to be a very effective mechanism for heating its upper layers using the energy of the solar wind.

In addition, it worked as a giant electron accelerator. The perturbation of the geomagnetic field that accompanied the space hurricane was not very strong: not even a magnetic storm, but only a substorm. But the spinning funnel accelerated the particles to energies that are only observed during superstorms.

The electrons slammed into the atoms of the air, causing a bright aurora in the form of moving spirals. It is safe to say that it was a spectacular sight.

Curiously, solar activity was low in 2014. And yet she caused such a large-scale event. Space hurricanes are likely to be more frequent in years of high activity. And, closely observing the upper boundary of the atmosphere, we will see them regularly.

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Rice, D. (2021, March 03). A ‘space hurricane’ hovered above the North pole for about 8 hours, study says.
\ • ScienceDaily. (2021, March 02). ‘Space Hurricane’ in Earth’s upper ATMOSPHERE DISCOVERED.
Starr, M. (n.d.). For the first time, a ‘space hurricane’ has been detected over the north pole.
University of Reading. (n.d.). Space hurricane observed for the first time.
Zhang, Q., Zhang, Y., Wang, C., Oksavik, K., Lyons, L., Lockwood, M., . . . Xia, L. (2021, February 22). A space hurricane over the Earth’s polar ionosphere.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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