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Space hurricane detected over the North Pole for the first time

Credit: Qing-he Zhang/ Shandong University.

For the first time, scientists have observed an extreme meteorological phenomenon called a “space hurricane”. The 1,000-kilometer-wide (620 miles) swirling mass of plasma recorded last week manifested for hours in Earth’s upper atmosphere, roughly 125 miles over the North Pole.

Scientists call the event a ‘space hurricane’ because its flows were strongest at the edge and decreased as you move toward the center, before picking up again on the other side, similarly to the airflow of a regular hurricane.

The space hurricane in Earth’s ionosphere was spinning anticlockwise, had multiple spiral arms, and last about eight hours before gradually breaking down. That’s about where the similarities with tropical hurricanes end, though.

Instead of water, space hurricanes rain down electrons. Like other space weather events, space hurricanes are caused by streams of plasma that hitch a ride on solar winds blown by the sun. Essentially, these are charged particles that are radially dispersed across space, and which can trigger magnetic storms and even the famous northern or southern lights when encountering Earth’s magnetic field.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Mike Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading, 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.

Sometimes, this radiation can wreak havoc on satellites in orbit and, occasionally, can cause outages on the ground by disrupting power transformers and other pieces of infrastructure. This is why scientists routinely monitor the planet’s magnetic field for disturbances.

But it was only recently that researchers at the University of Reading, UK, Shandong University, China, and the University of California, Los Angeles, identified a space hurricane once they combed through data recorded by satellites in August 2014.

Using this data, the research team devised a 3D model of the storm, which allowed them to describe the space weather phenomenon in great detail. What was particularly surprising was that the space hurricane formed during a period of low geomagnetic activity, which suggests that this phenomenon may be more common.

The researchers plan on conducting follow-up studies to determine how frequent these storms are. These investigations could prove paramount to the monitoring of space weather, which can disrupt GPS systems.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.