Scientists observe first-ever ‘space hurricane’ swirling above the North Pole

Researchers are calling it a plasma space hurricane

Illustration of a space hurricane, created using the observation data. (Image credit: Qing-He Zhang, Shandong University) (WKMG 2021)

Scientists have suspected conditions in space could create storm-like conditions above Earth for some time, but there’s now photographic evidence of what researchers are calling a plasma space hurricane.

The authors of a new paper published this week called Nature Communications say they have the first observations of a swirling mass of plasma above the North Pole resembling a hurricane.

Using satellite imagery in 2014, the teams at the University of Reading and Shandong University were able to create a 3D image of the 1,000 km-wide mass that rains down electrons instead of water. The space storms above Earth are created when solar wind from the sun smacks into Earth’s atmosphere.

“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,” Professor Mike Lockwood, space scientist at the University of Reading, said in a news release.

A 3D image from our sister station of what a Space hurricane looks like (WKMG 2021)

Lockwood and his team believe these space hurricanes could also be created beyond our solar system.

“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena,” Lockwood said.

What makes this new discovery so special is that hurricanes have also been observed in the lower atmospheres of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn but the existence of space hurricanes in the upper atmosphere of planets has not been detected before.

What creates a space hurricane?

Hurricanes occur in Earth’s oceans over warm bodies of water. When warm, moist air rises and creates an area of low pressure near the surface that sucks in the surrounding air, causing extremely strong winds and creating clouds that lead to the hurricane conditions we are used to.

But in the upper atmosphere, solar wind is responsible for creating space hurricanes.

The solar wind is a stream of charged particles that emanate from the corona or sun’s atmosphere. The particles travel in all directions and interact with anything they encounter, even Earth. Thankfully, our planet has a shield, the magnetosphere. If it wasn’t for this magnetic field, Earth would be in big trouble. Instead, most of the solar wind is deflected safely away and continues on its journey through space. If there was no magnetic field, harmful radiation carried by the solar wind would make it to the surface, threatening life.

Some of the particles that don’t get deflected into space are guided toward the north and south poles. Those particles then interact with gases in our atmosphere causing those gases to move into a higher-energy state, producing vibrant displays of light, or the Auroras, also known as the northern or southern lights.

Graphic from our sister station depicting how solar wind interacts with Earth (WKMG 2021)

The auroral oval is the footprint in the atmosphere of the boundary between the highly stretched field lines of the polar cap and the more normal field lines at lower latitudes. When the solar wind is strong, this boundary moves closer to the equator.

The auroral oval typically clings close to the poles, but space hurricanes occur even closer to the pole.

About the Author:

Jonathan Kegges joined the News 6 team in June 2019 as the Weekend Morning Meteorologist. Jonathan comes from Roanoke, Virginia where he covered three EF-3 tornadoes and deadly flooding brought on by Hurricanes Florence and Michael.