Swirling Plasma Clouds: What We Know About Space Hurricanes

Illustration based on recent confirmation of first-ever observed space hurricane. Qing-He Zhang/Shandong University

eOn August 20, 2014, researchers at Shandong University in China noticed some strange readings at Earth’s polar regions. There were no solar flares, abnormal geomagnetic conditions, or other phenomena that could explain these readings, yet there was a storm building at the North Pole. This was no ordinary storm: massive plasma clouds with spiraling arms were beginning to take shape, pulling electrons in from Earth’s magnetic field lines. While they didn’t know it then, the team at Shandong University was watching the first observed “space hurricane.” These space hurricanes aren’t actually visible to our eyes, but we can observe them using ultraviolet telescopes, such as the SSUSI used to make these observations.

Earth’s aurorae are caused by solar winds driving charged particles through space towards Earth, where some get swept up by Earth’s magnetic field lines and swirl around them, ending up at the magnetic poles. This space hurricane has many similar properties to the aurorae seen regularly at Earth’s poles, meaning it was likely generated the same way; however, given the relatively calm magnetic field and solar conditions on the day the space hurricane was observed, researchers still have many questions about what caused this huge particle storm above our North Pole. While it is true that there are always charged particles moving along our planet’s magnetic field lines, the intensity of this storm and its magnitude seemed to suggest some other unknown phenomenon caused it.

An analogy between hurricanes seen on Earth and these new space hurricanes makes a lot of sense, Michael Lockwood explains in an interview with NPR: these dense clouds of charged particles throw electrons into our atmosphere the same way that hurricanes on Earth throw rain at us, resulting in weird effects on our satellites and GPS systems that we don’t quite understand yet. 

Discovering this new phenomenon has also opened up new questions about our planet’s magnetosphere and weather in space, which leaves the team at Shandong University, as well as all of us, with just as many questions as answers. While we don’t yet know what caused a massive plasma storm on what seemed to be a geomagnetically calm day, we do know that these charged particles likely interacted with our satellites in ways we can see, if we know where to look, and that we clearly don’t know as much about space weather in the magnetosphere as we thought.

This article was edited by Luka Austin and Hedy Goodman.