Earth's Magnetic Field Just Hit a Phantom Speed Bump

Earth likely passed through “a fold in the heliospheric current sheet,” which induced a powerful electrical surge down here on the ground.

While science news is filled with rumbling earthquakes and rippling gravitational waves, a different kind of perturbation was felt in Norway yesterday (Jan. 6)—but its cause is a little mysterious.

“Electrical currents started flowing,” said Rob Stammes, of the Polarlightcenter geophysical observatory in Lofoten, Norway, in a report by Spaceweather.com.

A shockwave in magnetometer data and a surge in ground currents indicated that the magnetosphere had interacted with the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) [Rob Stammes/Polarlightcenter/Spaceweather.com]

Stammes monitors the flow of electricity through the ground and compares it with the wiggles of the Earth’s magnetic field (as plotted above). These two key measurements allow space weather scientists to better understand how our planet’s magnetosphere is being affected by the magnetic field of our Sun and how it may impact our everyday lives.

While the Sun-Earth relationship is well studied, usually magnetospheric jiggles are associated with obvious (and often explosive) solar phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and powerful solar wind flows. Yesterday, however, at around 1930 UT, our magnetosphere was jolted by a phantom event.

It was as if Earth orbited through an invisible magnetic speed bump.

Before we can understand what this means (and, indeed, why it’s important), let’s take a quick trip to the biggest magnetic dynamo in the Solar System.

As you can see, the Sun isn’t currently all that active [NASA/SDO]

You know it as the giant orb of superheated plasma that gives life to Earth and dazzles you during your commute home from work, but the Sun also has an invisible magnetic dominance over all the planets. Extending from the solar interior to well beyond the orbit of Pluto, the Sun’s magnetic field creates a vast magnetic bubble called the heliosphere. Carried by the solar wind, this magnetism spirals out, through interplanetary space, interacting with any other magnetic field it may come across. In the case of our planet, our global magnetic field (the magnetosphere) is generated by the constant sloshing of molten iron in Earth’s core. Our magnetosphere reaches out into interplanetary space and, like a forcefield, it deflects the highly energetic plasma (consisting mainly of protons and some highly ionized particles) sloughing from our Sun. There’s a constant magnetic battle raging over our heads; the Sun’s magnetic field washes over our protective magnetosphere, which acts like a sea wall protecting the coastline from an unrelenting stormy ocean.

Now, if the conditions are right, the Sun’s magnetic field may breach Earth’s magnetosphere, causing the two to snap and reconnect, effectively creating a temporary magnetic marriage between the Sun and Earth. When this happens, a magnetic highway for solar particles is formed, injecting the layers of our magnetosphere with solar plasma. Ultimately, this plasma can stream along our planet’s magnetic field (or get trapped and stored), creating auroras in higher latitudes and generate electrical currents through the atmosphere and surface.

The Earth’s magnetic field warps and bends, deflecting highly energetic solar particles. But sometimes, the shield is breached, often with dramatic effect. [NASA]

Usually, space weather forecasters use a plethora of instruments to predict when this might happen. For example, they may detect a CME erupt on the corona, predict its speed, and then register a flip in the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) by a satellite between us and the Sun (such as NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, which is located at the Sun-Earth L1 point, nearly a million miles “upstream” toward the Sun). But, in the case of yesterday’s mysterious event in Norway, there was no warning for the magnetic breach in our magnetosphere. No CME, no visible increase in solar wind intensity; just a magnetic blip from ACE and a shockwave sent ripping through magnetometer stations on the ground followed by a surge in electricity through our planet’s surface.

We’d been suckerpunched by the Sun’s magnetism, but there was no obvious fist. To confirm the sudden magnetic blow (called a geomagnetic storm), magnificent auroras erupted over the poles.

So, what happened? There is a theory:

Earth may have crossed through a fold in the heliospheric current sheet—a giant, wavy membrane of electrical current rippling through the solar system. Such crossings can cause these kind of effects.

Tony Phillips, Spaceweather.com

Looking like the warped disk of an old vinyl record, the heliospheric current sheet ripples throughout the solar system. As Earth rotates around the Sun, it will pass through the “surface” of this sheet, where the magnetic polarity of the IMF will rapidly change. And this is probably what happened yesterday. As the Earth orbited through a fold in the sheet, the magnetic polarity flipped 180 degrees, creating the phantom interaction with our magnetosphere. This, in turn, released solar particles that had been trapped in the layers of our magnetosphere, causing them to surge through the upper atmosphere, creating an intense—and surprise—auroral display.

Predicting when these events are going to occur is critical to space weather prediction efforts. As demonstrated by Stammes’ measurements of currents flowing through the ground, geomagnetic storms can overload national power grids, leaving entire nations (or, potentially, entire continents) in the dark.

While this Norway event didn’t cause reported damage to any infrastructure, it is a reminder that our planet’s interactions with the solar magnetic field—and subsequent impacts to our civilization—can be unpredictable and, in this case, invisible.

Psychedelic Simulation Showcases the Ferocious Power of a Solar Flare

Scientists are closing in on a better understanding about how these magnetic eruptions evolve

[Mark Cheung, Lockheed Martin, and Matthias Rempel, NCAR]

For the first time, scientists have created a computer model that can simulate the evolution of a solar flare, from thousands of miles below the photosphere to the eruption itself in the lower corona — the sun’s multimillion degree atmosphere. And the results are not only scientifically impressive, the visualization is gorgeous.

I’ve always had a fascination with the sun — from how our nearest star generates its energy via fusion reactions in its core, to how the tumultuous streams of energetic plasma slams into our planet’s magnetosphere, igniting spectacular aurorae. Much of my interest, however, has focused on the lower corona; a region where the intense magnetic field emerges from the solar interior and reaches into space. With these magnetic fields comes a huge release of hot plasma that is channeled by the magnetism to form beautiful coronal loops. Intense regions of magnetism can accumulate in violently-churning “active regions,” creating sunspots and explosive events — triggered by large-scale magnetic reconnection — such as flares and coronal mass ejections (or CMEs). This is truly a mysterious place and solar physicists have tried to understand its underlying dynamics for decades.

The eruption of an X-class solar flare in the sun’s multimillion degree corona [NASA/SDO]

Now, with increasingly-sophisticated solar observatories (such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory), we are getting an ever more detailed look at what’s going on inside the sun’s deep atmosphere and, with improvements of theoretical models and increases in computer processing power, simulations of the corona are looking more and more like the real thing. And this simulation, detailed in the journal Nature Astronomyis truly astonishing.

In the research, led by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, the evolution of a solar flare has been modeled. This simulation goes beyond previous efforts as it is more realistic and creates a more complete picture of the range of emissions that can be generated when a solar flare is unleashed.

One of the biggest questions hanging over solar (and indeed, stellar) physics is how the sun (and other stars) heat the corona. As we all know, the sun is very hot but its corona is too hot; the photosphere is a few thousand degrees, whereas, only just above it, the coronal plasma skyrockets to millions of degrees, generating powerful radiation beyond what the human eye can see, such as extreme-ultraviolet and X-rays. Basic thermodynamics says that this shouldn’t be possible — this situation is analogous to finding the air surrounding a light bulb is hotter than the bulb’s glass. But what our sun has that a light bulb does not is a powerful magnetic field that dictates the size, shape, temperature and dynamics of the plasma our sun is blasting into space. (If you want some light reading on the subject, you can read my PhD thesis on the topic.)

“This work allows us to provide an explanation for why flares look like the way they do, not just at a single wavelength, but in visible wavelengths, in ultraviolet and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, and in X-rays. We are explaining the many colors of solar flares.”

Mark Cheung, staff physicist at Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.

The basis of this new simulation, however, investigates another mystery: How and why do solar flares erupt and evolve? It looks like the research team might be on the right track.

When high-energy particles from the sun impact our atmosphere, vast light shows called auroras can be generated during the geomagnetic storm, as shown in this view from the International Space Station [NASA]

Inspired by a powerful flare that was observed in the corona in March 2014, the researchers provided their magnetohydrodynamic model with an approximation of the conditions that were observed at the time. The magnetic conditions surrounding the active region were primed to generate a powerful X-class flare (the most powerful type of solar flare) and several less powerful (but no less significant) M-class flares. So, rather than forcing their simulation to generate flares, they re-enacted the conditions of the sun that were observed and just let their simulation run to create its own flares.

“Our model was able to capture the entire process, from the buildup of energy to emergence at the surface to rising into the corona, energizing the corona, and then getting to the point when the energy is released in a solar flare,” said NCAR scientist Matthias Rempel in a statement. “This was a stand-alone simulation that was inspired by observed data.

“The next step is to directly input observed data into the model and let it drive what’s happening. It’s an important way to validate the model, and the model can also help us better understand what it is we’re observing on the sun.”

Solar flares, CMEs and even the solar wind can have huge impacts on our technological society. The X-rays blasting from the sun’s atmosphere millions of miles away can have dramatic impacts on the Earth’s ionosphere (impacting communications) and can irradiate unprotected astronauts in space, for example. CMEs can be launched from the corona and arrive at Earth orbit in a matter of hours or days, triggering geomagnetic storms that can impact entire power grids. We’re not just talking a few glitches on your cellphone here; satellites can be knocked out, power supplies neutralized and global communications networks interrupted. It’s simulations like these, which aim to get to the bottom of how these solar storms are initiated, that can help us better prepare for our sun’s next big temper tantrum.

For more on this research, watch this video: