Space weather

When the solar wind hits the Earth, it can set off space storms, space hurricanes, and even space tornadoes.

Last year I noted that adding “space” before a noun instantly makes it cooler. So, today, I’m writing about space weather.

One might think that space, lacking an atmosphere, also lacks weather. But the sun produces a constant stream of plasma called the solar wind. When it hits the Earth this stream of electrons, protons, and alpha rays collides with the planet’s magnetic field and produces the aurora borealis and the aurora australis. But this solar wind can also produce some strange upper atmospheric phenomena: space hurricanes and space tornadoes. To put it another way, where there’s wind, there’s weather.

In 2014, scientists observed a large magnetic storm over the North Pole. Plasma was whipping around the upper atmosphere at fantastic speeds, over seventy five hundred kilometres per hour. This storm was huge, a thousand kilometres across. It was oddly calm in the centre, and had spiralling arms extending out from that centre. In other words, this storm’s behaviour strongly resembled a terrestrial hurricane… just without the water. This time last year, the researchers published their conclusion: this was a space hurricane.

This is not the only solar wind phenomenon to resemble an Earth-bound weather event. Back in 2009, researchers reported on a huge swirl of plasma that they called a space tornado. It was a long funnel whipping around at seemingly-impossible speeds – up to 1.6 million kilometres per hour – that they hypothesised might be the cause of the planet’s auroras. Strangely, I haven’t found a lot of follow-up research about this phenomenon since 2009, so take that explanation with a grain of salt.

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