A research team from Shandong University in China observed a peculiar swirling formation of plasma high above Earth’s North Pole in August of 2014, IGN reports, and a new study now classifies the phenomenon as a “space hurricane.”
“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 environment physicist, from the University of Reading (located in Reading, Berkshire) said in a statement (via IGN).
What’s a space hurricane?
According to Live Science, the colossal cosmic storm was made when a tangle of magnetic field lines were struck by solar wind. The 2014 storm was a 620-mile-wide mass of swirling plasma that passed through Earth’s upper atmosphere raining electrons rather than water, NBC News reports.
While the storm was invisible to the naked eye, four weather satellites that passed over the area at the time detected a formation that shared similarities to a typical hurricane we see on Earth, according to Live Science.
“These flows (of plasma) 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.” Dr. Larry Lyons, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles, said (via NBC News).
On March 3, The Hill tweeted an image of an artist’s concept of the space hurricane.
How’d the storm happen?
According to NBC News, space hurricanes are caused by plasma unleashed from the sun as solar wind. These charged particle clouds travel through space and fuel magnetic storms as they interact with magnetic fields.
Live Science reports that researchers used a 3D model of the hurricane to hypothesize that the storm’s shape was the result of a “complex interaction” that took place between the solar wind and the magnetic field above the North Pole.
“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,” Michael Lockwood, professor of space environment physics at the University of Reading and a co-author of the study, said in a statement (via NBC News).
While the existence of the space hurricane was only discovered recently, researchers suggest these cosmic storms could be fairly common occurrences on any planet with a plasma-rich atmosphere and a magnetic shield, according to Live Science.
Are the space hurricanes dangerous?
Live Science states that the space hurricane phenomena take place in our upper atmosphere and pose little threat to our planet. The storms can, however, impact satellites by increasing their drag or disrupting GPS and radio systems.