Cracks in Earth's Magnetic Field Let in a Huge Gust of Solar Wind

By Eliza Strickland | December 17, 2008 2:18 pm

magnetosphere-2The magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation sometimes springs a couple of large leaks that let in blasts of solar wind, researchers have discovered. While humanity isn’t in any imminent danger, researchers say that during intense solar storms the rents in what’s known as the magnetosphere will let in streams of charged solar particles, which can interfere with satellites and electricity grids.

Researchers knew previously that cracks in the magnetosphere sometimes occur, but they didn’t understand their potential size and had some misunderstandings about how they formed. Previously, scientists believed that the holes form when the sun’s magnetic field is aligned in the opposite direction from the Earth’s. But the new study showed that 20 times more solar particles enter the Earth’s magnetic field when it is aligned in the same direction as the sun’s magnetic field. The alignment causes the two magnetic fields to connect and tears holes in the Earth’s magnetic field over the poles. “What we observed was the breach in the levee,” said Jimmy Raeder, a physicist at the University of New Hampshire. “This has taken us completely by surprise” [Reuters].

The results, announced at the American Geophysical Union meeting, were obtained by NASA’s five THEMIS satellites, one of which flew through a band of solar particles as they streamed through a breach in 2007. Sensors recorded a torrent of solar wind particles streaming into the magnetosphere, said Raeder. “The opening was huge — four times wider than Earth itself,” said Raeder. “This kind of influx is an order of magnitude greater than what we thought was possible” [Reuters].

The findings will help scientists prepare for the next batch of intense solar storms. The Sun operates on an 11-year cycle, alternating between active and quiet periods. We are currently in a quiet period, with few sunspots on the sun’s surface and fewer solar flares, though the next cycle of activity has begun. It is expected to peak around 2012, bringing lots of sunspots, flares and coronal mass ejections []. The magnetic fields of the sun and Earth are expected to be in alignment around the time of the next peak, which could amplify the storms’ effects.

Related Content:
80beats: Traveling to Mars? You’ll Need This Miniature Magnetic Force-Field
80beats: Space Probe Launched to Study the Surprising Drop in Solar Wind
DISCOVER: Space Weather and the havoc it can cause

Image: NASA

  • Tommmeee

    It never fails to amaze me how much we learn about the little we know. We know so much yet it is so little. We may never learn why most things happen but we can learn that it happens. The satisfaction of learning these things is great

  • Xander

    Yes, it is interesting to learn these things. However, considering the consequences of this happening, I would rather them be wrong on this one.

  • Rosemary Regello

    F.Y.I. — For more on earth’s declining magnetism, solar wind and predictions for 2012, check out a new article that provides an easy-to-understand, comprehensive overview of the whole phenomenon, with a reading list and links to useful websites. Here’s a direct link:

  • http://www, phil hannu

    I don’t go about trying to find fault with people. However, I believe syntax is something worth
    preserving. If you say “I would rather them be wrong.”, you are making “them” the object of the verb, which it is not. ” I would rather [that] they be wrong ” avoids this difficulty.

  • Brother Lawrence

    Thanks for the link Rosemary, looks quite comprehensive. Off to read before our morning prayer. BL

  • SC

    phil…check out he syntax in the copyright note in the right side-bar. ‘DISCOVER olds the exclusive copyright to 80beats posts for 30 days after publication, but after that you can have at them’.

    not the bestest example setting for them reading :)

    one good X-class flare through this gap and we’re all crispy critters! might i suggest that is slightly more important than syntax?

  • singh is king

    2012 doomsday.. as mayan calendar predicted. Thanks to USA govt’s military use of HAARP technology to cause earthquakes in places like china and elsewhere, which has harmed our magentic shield against the suns solar radition…. we can expect the mayan prophecy come true.

  • elklu

    Thanks… i learn many things just by paying atention to the right topics….

    This time i learned about the universe (is it Universe?) and also thanks phil hanu for clearing that… i´m spanish speaker and it’s hard that someone correct you those mistakes…

  • Mick

    No no

    It’s “hard that someones corrects your mistakes”

    Just joking

    The field will collapse (it has done many times before see creation-noah (revelations (next one) and the Youngers Dryas event (13000 BP))Why does it keep collapsing ? I don’t know. The Mayans probably inherited their count down and didn’t know either. When will it collapse? During 2011 and 2012. Will it be pleasant? Well it won’t be boring. The good news is that the increase in solar energy will boost your intelligence (they call it conciousness) and all will be clear. (Just Birthing pains don’t you know). Don’t panic.

  • Cigarette electrique

    is it better than the volcano? I heard you can not pass the bags around without losing precious vaper like you can with the auto shut? volcano bags.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar