Scientists have confirmed the existence of so-called “space hurricanes” after spotting one over the North Pole, where the massive plasma storm churned high up on the edge of space.
Researchers in China, the U.K., the U.S. and Norway discovered the space hurricane by piecing together satellite data from 2014, according to their findings published in Nature Communications.
The space hurricane happened in August of that year and lasted for about eight hours, but scientists only discovered it by looking back at satellite observations and other weather data. The storm measured over 1,000 km wide, had several spiral arms, swirled in a counter-clockwise direction and rained electrons down on the Earth, according to their findings.
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” researcher Mike Lockwood said in a news release from Reading University in the United Kingdom.
They dubbed the phenomenon a “space hurricane” because it had a stable centre point like a hurricane eye, strong shears around the edges and other flowing patterns similar to the lower-atmosphere storms, according to lead study author Zhang Qinghe of Shandong University in China.
Despite these similarities, researchers say the space hurricane was made of plasma and not water.
The image they pieced together from the storm looks like a cross between a hurricane and the Aurora Borealis, or simply like a gigantic blast of green energy.
The storm happened hundreds of kilometres above the North Pole in the Earth’s ionosphere, scientists say. The ionosphere is a layer filled with charged particles between the Earth’s atmosphere and space, and it protects the planet from some of the more harmful energy from the sun. It’s also home to many satellites, and often bears the brunt of solar weather patterns.
Researchers say the space hurricane essentially pulled energy down from space through the ionosphere, rather than allowing the layer to absorb or deflect the incoming rays.
“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,” Lockwood said.
They say the space hurricane was particularly interesting because it happened while conditions around it were relatively quiet.
The discovery is expected to shed more light on the way that space weather works, and how it affects planets like our own and other worlds nearby.
“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe,” Lockwood said, “so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena.”