In the summer of 2014, scientists observed a huge geomagnetic storm hovering above the North Pole that looked like a giant space "hurricane." Instead of water churning around, it was plasma high above the atmosphere.
Just recently, those observers have detailed this out-of-this-world event in an article in Nature Communications.
What You Need To Know
- A large "space hurricane" was observed back in 2014, the first seen near Earth
- Similar storms have been recorded on other planets in the past
- More research is being done on what, if any, impacts this has on Earth or its atmosphere
Researchers have labeled what they saw nearly seven years ago as a "space hurricane" due to its shape and rotational properties. Professor Qing-He Zang of the School of Space Science and Physics at Shangdong University in China first observed the event using modeling data and observations in the magnetosphere and ionosphere well above the Earth's surface.
Labeling The Layers
Before we move on, let's talk about the two "spheres." The Earth's magnetosphere is the region around the planet where the magnetic field affects particles and objects. Satellites, for example, are located inside Earth's magnetosphere.
The ionosphere is located just a little lower, in the upper part of Earth's atmosphere, and extends from 50 miles to about 600 miles up above the surface.
What was observed on August 14, 2014 looked similar to a hurricane, according to researchers, due to its "nearly zero-flow center and strong circular horizontal plasma flow, shears, and electron precipitation," stating that these features resemble a "typical hurricane." Instead of actual precipitation, what seemed to "rain down" were electrons.
While hurricanes can reach 300 to 400 miles in width, scientists estimated this event to be nearly 600 miles wide. On Earth, hurricanes transport large quantities of mass and energy. In space, researchers observed this "storm" as "a rapid energy transfer channel from space to the ionosphere and the thermosphere."
Hurricane In Name Only
It is important to note, however, that describing this phenomenon as a hurricane is technically false, other than to allude to its shape and some of its behavior. In reality, a more appropriate term would perhaps be a vortex, since there is no water or heat involved.
However, what was seen was cyclonic in nature, had little geomagnetic behavior and light solar wind. Hurricanes, of course, have gusty and often violent winds, but do form when winds are very light aloft. Too much wind at those higher levels doesn't allow hurricanes to form; they tear them apart top-down.
In addition, this space cyclone was observed in the ionosphere, not the troposphere where typical hurricanes are found.
In (And Out Of) This World
What researchers saw here may have been a first close to our planet, but similar "storms" have been observed on other planets, such as Mars and Jupiter, in the past. Even gasses located deep within the sun's atmosphere have been observed swirling around, dubbed "solar tornadoes."
This latest observation will continue to be studied and hopefully seen again by researchers to determine what effects, if any, it may have on Earth. Some scientists theorize there may even be disruptions to radio frequencies, radars, and even satellite communications.