Space Hurricane Observed Above the North Pole for the First Time

Instead of raining down water like ground hurricanes, the space hurricane twirled electrons and plasma.
Fabienne Lang
Space hurricaneUniversity of Reading

This week, scientists shared the results of the first-ever observations of a space hurricane in Earth's upper atmosphere. 

Instead of raining down water like ground hurricanes, the space one twirled electrons and plasma, as the scientists from the University of Reading in the U.K., and Shandong University in China reported in their study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Up until now, scientists weren't certain space hurricanes existed, explained the co-author of the study Mike Lockwood. The incredible phenomenon actually took place in August 2014.

How the space hurricane formed and its significance

The team discovered the space hurricane by perusing data collected by satellites in 2014, but only recently observed the 620-mile-wide (1,000 km) swirling mass of plasma several hundred kilometers above the North Pole. In order to produce the image of the hurricane, the team used four DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellites and 3D magnetosphere modeling.

These observations confirmed such hurricanes exist and offer clues about their formation. 

Plasma has been an area of interest for space scientists. In 2017, NASA published a study of plasma space tornados. And this recent study furthers this hot topic of conversation and observation. 

Lockwood pointed out that "Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomenon."

In explaining how these space hurricanes form, he compared them to our planet's storms, "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."

The space hurricane the team observed was spinning in an anticlockwise formation, had multiple spiral arms, and lasted about eight hours before it disappeared.

Discovering and observing space hurricanes could help scientists gain a deeper understanding of space weather, and how it impacts our Earth's systems — such as GPS.

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