Scientists have observed a hurricane in Earth’s upper atmosphere for the first time after probing satellite data nearly a decade old, but instead of spewing out water like land-based storms, it poured electrons over the North Pole.
The celestial phenomenon, which spanned about 620 miles and lasted almost eight hours before breaking down, has the power to affect satellite signals and radio communications, which bounce off that layer of space to reach their destinations.
While astronomers have spotted terrestrial-like hurricanes on Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as solar tornadoes of swirling gases in the sun’s atmosphere, the storm in the ionosphere — the boundary between where we live and the vacuum of space — is the first known “hurricane” to have been detected there.
The discovery, published in a Nature Communications study last month, reveals that observatories used to study Earth’s magnetic field where such space weather occurs fail to capture the cosmic events, which may explain why it slipped under the radar in 2014. The researchers say their finding updates scientists’ understanding of the relationship between planets and space, even under “extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions.”
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” study co-author Mike Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading in England, said in a statement. “Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.”
An international team from China, Norway, the U.K. and the U.S. studied satellite observations from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program made in 2014, and used 3D modeling to produce an image and video of the hurricane.
They learned the storm spun counterclockwise, had multiple arms and lasted about eight hours before disseminating in the universe.
“You could see flows of plasma going around, which were like the winds of the space hurricane,” study co-author Larry Lyons, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News. “These flows were strongest at the edge and decreased as you moved toward the eye in the center, before picking up again on the other side, just like the flow of air in a regular hurricane.”
But unlike those that flood coastal cities, these powerful space storms rain electrons in the ionosphere, home to all of Earth’s charged particles, according to NASA. In this layer, the sun “cooks” gases “until they lose an electron or two, which creates a sea of electrically charged particles.”
“We had various instruments measuring various things at different times, so it wasn’t like we took a big picture and could see it,” Lyons told the outlet. “The really fun thing about this type of work is that we had to piece together bits of information and put together the whole picture.”
The researchers say the space hurricane they observed is “likely a universal phenomenon,” wreaking silent havoc on other planets and their moons. More research is needed to fully understand the breadth of these events.