A Puzzling Collapse of Earth's Upper Atmosphere

Jul 15, 2010 by Dr. Tony Phillips
Layers of Earth's upper atmosphere. Credit: John Emmert/NRL.

NASA-funded researchers are monitoring a big event in our planet's atmosphere. High above Earth's surface where the atmosphere meets space, a rarefied layer of gas called "the thermosphere" recently collapsed and now is rebounding again.

"This is the biggest contraction of the thermosphere in at least 43 years," says John Emmert of the Naval Research Lab, lead author of a paper announcing the finding in the June 19th issue of the (GRL). "It's a Space Age record."

The collapse happened during the deep of 2008-2009—a fact which comes as little surprise to researchers. The thermosphere always cools and contracts when is low. In this case, however, the magnitude of the collapse was two to three times greater than low solar activity could explain.

"Something is going on that we do not understand," says Emmert.

The thermosphere ranges in altitude from 90 km to 600+ km. It is a realm of , auroras and satellites, which skim through the thermosphere as they circle Earth. It is also where solar radiation makes first contact with our planet. The thermosphere intercepts extreme ultraviolet (EUV) from the sun before they can reach the ground. When solar activity is high, solar EUV warms the thermosphere, causing it to puff up like a marshmallow held over a camp fire. (This heating can raise temperatures as high as 1400 K—hence the name thermosphere.) When solar activity is low, the opposite happens.

Lately, solar activity has been very low. In 2008 and 2009, the sun plunged into a century-class solar minimum. were scarce, solar flares almost non-existent, and solar EUV radiation was at a low ebb. Researchers immediately turned their attention to the thermosphere to see what would happen.

These plots show how the density of the thermosphere (at a fiducial height of 400 km) has waxed and waned during the past four solar cycles. Frames (a) and (b) are density; frame (b) is the sun's radio intensity at a wavelength of 10.7 cm, a key indicator of solar activity. Note the yellow circled region. In 2008 and 2009, the density of the thermosphere was 28% lower than expectations set by previous solar minima. Credit: Emmert et al. (2010), Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L12102.

How do you know what's happening all the way up in the thermosphere?

Emmert uses a clever technique: Because satellites feel aerodynamic drag when they move through the thermosphere, it is possible to monitor conditions there by watching satellites decay. He analyzed the decay rates of more than 5000 satellites ranging in altitude between 200 and 600 km and ranging in time between 1967 and 2010. This provided a unique space-time sampling of thermospheric density, temperature, and pressure covering almost the entire Space Age. In this way he discovered that the thermospheric collapse of 2008-2009 was not only bigger than any previous collapse, but also bigger than the sun alone could explain.

One possible explanation is carbon dioxide (CO2).

When carbon dioxide gets into the thermosphere, it acts as a coolant, shedding heat via infrared radiation. It is widely-known that CO2 levels have been increasing in Earth's atmosphere. Extra CO2 in the thermosphere could have magnified the cooling action of solar minimum.

"But the numbers don't quite add up," says Emmert. "Even when we take CO2 into account using our best understanding of how it operates as a coolant, we cannot fully explain the thermosphere's collapse."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
An NCAR video shows how carbon dioxide warms the lower atmosphere, but cools the upper atmosphere.

According to Emmert and colleagues, low solar EUV accounts for about 30% of the collapse. Extra CO2 accounts for at least another 10%. That leaves as much as 60% unaccounted for.

In their GRL paper, the authors acknowledge that the situation is complicated. There's more to it than just solar EUV and terrestrial CO2. For instance, trends in global climate could alter the composition of the thermosphere, changing its thermal properties and the way it responds to external stimuli. The overall sensitivity of the thermosphere to could actually be increasing.

"The density anomalies," they wrote, "may signify that an as-yet-unidentified climatological tipping point involving energy balance and chemistry feedbacks has been reached."

Or not.

Important clues may be found in the way the thermosphere rebounds. Solar minimum is now coming to an end, EUV radiation is on the rise, and the thermosphere is puffing up again. Exactly how the recovery proceeds could unravel the contributions of solar vs. terrestrial sources.

"We will continue to monitor the situation," says Emmert.

Explore further: Coral reveals long-term link between Pacific winds, global climate

More information: Emmert, J. T., J. L. Lean, and J. M. Picone (2010), Record-low thermospheric density during the 2008 solar minimum, Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L12102.

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deatopmg
1.8 / 5 (20) Jul 15, 2010
Since their understanding of what is going on is, by their own admission, so incomplete how can they possibly assign percent contribution to EUV, CO2, or anything else? Oops, now I see why - our space agency PR at work.
marjon
1.8 / 5 (18) Jul 15, 2010
What, CO2 is not the cause?
hbar_squared
4.8 / 5 (18) Jul 15, 2010
Since their understanding of what is going on is, by their own admission, so incomplete how can they possibly assign percent contribution to EUV, CO2, or anything else? Oops, now I see why - our space agency PR at work.

It's actually quite simple. CO2 is well studied in the lab, so it is possible to say that at X concentration and Y temperature, the CO2 should radiate Z amount of heat into space. Similarly, it is easy to measure the amount of EUV absorption and compare it to the decrease of EUV in the last solar cycle. The amount CO2 radiates, plus the expected decrease from low solar radiation adds up to a number. Compare that number to the observed temperature and find that they do not match. Therefore, you can conclude that there are things at work you have not identified.

It's called science. No problem is ever known fully, and if it is, it's no longer science.
solrey
4.9 / 5 (8) Jul 15, 2010
This minimum really isn't comparable to previous minimums during the space age. The current solar minimum for an extended period of time has produced the lowest activity, across the board for all indices which is unprecedented during the time of the space age. Solar activity influences the upper atmosphere in more ways than just EUV. The fluctuations in the interplanetary magnetic field should produce electromagnetic induction in the free ions/electrons in the thermosphere. More rapid and stronger ongoing changes to the IMF should produce more inductive heating in the thermosphere in comparison to less heating produced during times of more quiescent IMF activity such as this current solar cycle. The Kp index probably has a better correlation to thermospheric temps than the EUV index. I suspect an electromagnetic induction effect might be what's unaccounted for.
bottomlesssoul
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2010
As the atmosphere warms in the troposphere where we live it raises the height of the tropopause. The trapping will also cause a slightly reduced level of outgoing radiation. I know most of this is trapped in the troposphere and the 'pause' is the balance where incoming and outgoing IR balance. I wonder how much this residual effect if any contributes to this thermosphere observation.
rwinners
1.3 / 5 (6) Jul 16, 2010
Puzzlement! If space is HOT, how do our satellites actually exist there without frying their silicon brains? Just call me confused.
Shootist
1.7 / 5 (11) Jul 16, 2010
We are so heading for the next Maunder Minimum. Huzzah!
PinkElephant
4.6 / 5 (10) Jul 16, 2010
@rwinners,
Puzzlement! If space is HOT, how do our satellites actually exist there without frying their silicon brains? Just call me confused.
The gas molecules in the thermosphere pretty much *have to be* hot (i.e. having a lot of kinetic energy) in order to stay up there: otherwise, they'd just fall back down to earth. However, the key to your conundrum is the density of the gas molecules. When you're surrounded by a very hot, but very thin gas, you can still rapidly freeze to death by radiating your heat away faster than you can gain heat from the few hot molecules and atoms zipping around and occasionally hitting you.
Loodt
1.3 / 5 (14) Jul 16, 2010
PinkElephant, I am not convinced by your arguement, you cannot have these hotspots in outer space. The rogue hot molecules up there would have been measured by the men and sputniks in space, nothing published suggests hot molecules in the realms of the cold outer space.
ShotmanMaslo
3.4 / 5 (12) Jul 16, 2010
PinkElephant, I am not convinced by your arguement, you cannot have these hotspots in outer space. The rogue hot molecules up there would have been measured by the men and sputniks in space, nothing published suggests hot molecules in the realms of the cold outer space.


But this is not outer space, we are talking about low Earth orbit. It is not complete vacuum, because otherwise satelites, shuttles and even ISS would not decay. It is a long-known fact.
Sazzle
4.9 / 5 (7) Jul 16, 2010
@rwinners - what has more ENERGY... a bucket of warm warm tap water or the flame of a lit match? When you have worked that out then think which has the highest temperature. Then in your mind compare that result to the thin atmosphere at 400km altitude. Clue - One has more molecules than the other.
RCB
2.3 / 5 (9) Jul 16, 2010
This article is simply bullshit. This paper is what I call a semi-factual construct or a "paint by number" production. In other words they know little or nothing factual about a phenomenon, so several facts are linked together to fool the reader into thinking the author(s) know almost everything about it. No mater how they arrived at the 60% unknown cause, the article is far from confidence inspiring.
Unfortunately for us taxpayers this is common NASA fare.
ArcainOne
4.5 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2010
This article is simply bullshit. This paper is what I call a semi-factual construct or a "paint by number" production. In other words they know little or nothing factual about a phenomenon, so several facts are linked together to fool the reader into thinking the author(s) know almost everything about it. No mater how they arrived at the 60% unknown cause, the article is far from confidence inspiring.
Unfortunately for us taxpayers this is common NASA fare.


Welcome to the wonderful world of science nice of you to join us. Unfortunatly for US Taxpayers NASA is one of the least funded highly important government agencies in the United states, taking only 00.6 to 00.8 percent of the government budget... ouch my wallet. Honestly there are a lot worst government programs out there your money IS going to at least nasa actually has an impact on our future.
GSwift7
2 / 5 (8) Jul 16, 2010
"2.Atmospheric tides propagate in an atmosphere where density varies significantly with height. A consequence of this is that their amplitudes naturally increase exponentially as the tide ascends into progressively more rarefied regions of the atmosphere "

That's from wiki. Small periodic fluctuations in tidal forces could account for a portion of the missing 60%. A quick google search gave me several explanations, including the magnetic field mentioned above. If they are experts and they still have no idea of a possible cause, then I'm speechless.
Birthmark
1.4 / 5 (5) Jul 16, 2010
I know this is a far reach, but is it possible that it could be the government or DARPA? I've heard they have been using things that shoot electromagnetic waves (thought for mind control) into the upper parts of our atmosphere causing clouds to shot into space.

Just some stuff I heard, seen some shows on it. Seemed relevant.
hylozoic
Jul 16, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
fabforce1
1 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2010
LOL...LOL..c02 may be the problem...LOL

when is this debacle going to end...omg

i need c02 so my veggies grow big and strong in the vegetable garden.
maybe we should start to collect c02 and store it underground for future use...when everyone has stopped producing it(c02)and there is no trace of it being in the air that we breath and all our plants and bee's are dieing off we will have enough stored c02 to send back into the atmosphere for my veggie garden to grow...lol..for published scientific literature on what i say go read your high school environmental studies text book or google it and then go up to a dandelion and breath heavily on it for me please cus that may be the only thing we will have left to eat in the near future.
Scrib
3 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2010
It's called science. No problem is ever known fully, and if it is, it's no longer science.


Oh, wow. So once something becomes fact it is no longer subject to scientific principles?

Shaking my head: American science really is in the crapper, isn't it?
Scrib
4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2010
I know this is a far reach, but is it possible that it could be the government or DARPA? I've heard they have been using things that shoot electromagnetic waves (thought for mind control) into the upper parts of our atmosphere causing clouds to shot into space.

Just some stuff I heard, seen some shows on it. Seemed relevant.


First, you can't mass control minds with EM waves. Animal nervous systems are composed of electrochemical biomatter, which does not react to magnetic waves the way that metallic conductors do. The way this works is that when a magnetic wave travels through a metallic conductor, it creates an electrical charge. It's the reason why EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) weapons won't disable people or animals, but will disable unhardened electrical systems. Humans just don't have enough metal.

Second, the amount of energy required to do this isn't human generatable. Output of the entire world's grid wouldn't be enough.

It's as relevant as the size of my genitalia.
SeanInNYC
1 / 5 (6) Jul 18, 2010
Ahh, the new global warming angle has arrived. We've been waiting for it.

Sorry folks, but the world has already learned that research scientists are the highly paid welfare queens of new millenium. They beg for money, and realize they only get it when they pull a chicken little and claim disaster.

Expect more "woe calamity unless you pay me" papers like this as governmental discretionary spending dries up and these mendicant scientists do all they can to avoid getting a real job.

Sorry, Cassandras. We know what drives research science now, and it's certainly not science or the pursuit of the truth. Left-wing ideology and high-salary beggary.
Jigga
1.6 / 5 (7) Jul 18, 2010
A Puzzling Collapse of Earth's Upper Atmospher
Lower solar activity means lower charging of upper layers of atmosphere, it means smaller repulsive forces there.

After all, such process occurs every morning and evening, when it manifests itself by interferences of long radiowave signals.

http://twistedphy...0c-500wi
kwo
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2010
When carbon dioxide gets into the thermosphere, it acts as a coolant, shedding heat via infrared radiation.


I guess I don't know enough chemistry to understand this statement. Why would CO2 act as a coolant in the thermosphere, but act as a greenhouse gas in the lower atmosphere? I realize there's a significant difference in density, but that doesn't quite explain it.
Jigga
1.2 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2010
The point of this idea is, the heat reflected by ground layer of CO2 back to Earth surface is missing at the upper layers of atmosphere.
marjon
2.8 / 5 (4) Jul 18, 2010
The point of this idea is, the heat reflected by ground layer of CO2 back to Earth surface is missing at the upper layers of atmosphere.

Heat is not 'reflected' like a mirror. Heat is transferred via photons or phonons.
Jigga
1.6 / 5 (8) Jul 18, 2010
Heat is not 'reflected' like a mirror. Heat is transferred via photons or phonons.

Well, another expert... And these photons cannot be reflected (i.e. absorbed and re-emitted in preferred direction)?

BTW Mirror is not "reflected" anyway, it's reflecting instead.

http://upload.wik....svg.png
HeloMenelo
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2010
@SeanInNYC

Well done...lol..That just about sums it up err.. except for one tiny thing, you forgot to add the word "Anti" in front of global in your
first sentence, which makes your statement to this topic irrelevant. Yet relevant about deniers of global warming.

Preaching irrelevancy did not stop us from looking and seeing first hand what man made emissions has done to nature, the result is right in front of us here and now!
HeloMenelo
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2010
Just so there is no misunderstanding, my second paragraph should read:

You Preaching irrelevancy in your statement above did not stop us from looking and seeing first hand what man made emissions has done to nature, the result is right in front of us here and now!
GSwift7
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 18, 2010
Oh boy. Infrared radiation isn't reflected by CO2 it is absorbed at certain frequencies and then radiated back out at other frequencies. When any kind of energy (including IR) is absorbed by something it's temperature increases. Ice crystals in cloud tops can reflect IR back out to space though.

As to the relevance of CO2: CO2 accounts for 8-26% of heat trapped by the atmosphere. The rest is mostly absorbed by water vapor. The current estimate of CO2 in the atmosphere is 382 parts per million I think I recall. Of that, only 1/4 to 1/3 is human-made according to most sources. If you combine those two numbers then human contribution to warming is between 2% and 8.6% of total. If the average temperature is rising by 1/10th of a degree per year, then human CO2 causes between .002 and .0086 degrees rise in temp per year. Reducing human CO2 by 50% (impossible) would result in an improvement beyond our ability to measure.

That is irrelevant.
GSwift7
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 18, 2010
By the way, IR trapped by CO2 is subject to the law of diminishing returns, something that isn't talked about much in AGW circles. The bulk of the absorbed IR is absorbed by the first of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Additional CO2 has a decreasing effect per portion. There is also a finite limit to the amount of IR that can be absorbed by CO2. Once all of the energy at a given wavelength has been absorbed there isn't any more to absorb.
Jigga
2.4 / 5 (9) Jul 18, 2010
Reducing human CO2 by 50% (impossible) would result in an improvement beyond our ability to measure
@GSwift7: this is a BS - read about theory of green house effect first. Doubling of carbon dioxide to 600 ppm increases global atmosphere temperature by about 1.5 - 5 degrees Celsius, depending on the altitude. A global ocean temperature increase of one degree Celsius will increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the range of 8 ppm to 18 ppm, depending on the altitude.
GSwift7
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 19, 2010
NO Jigga, that is incorrect. I can site sources including the NOAA site, NASA, NCDC for my numbers. Where in the world do you find CO2 concentrations of 8 to 18 PPM? That is totally incorrect, and way less than the real numbers. That is silly. The natural, non-human CO2 concentration is over 200 ppm. That is the estimated concentration before the industrial revolution. I think it's actually estimated to be closer to 300 than 200 ppm.

The natural CO2 accounts for most of the temp increase. The human portion of CO2 is miniscule compared to all the other factors here. Water vapor makes CO2 look like a candle compared to the sun in regard to IR absorbtion. Look it up and sight sources if you dispute that fact. I have sighted sorces in other posts regarding this topic. Heck, just google it.
GSwift7
1.4 / 5 (8) Jul 19, 2010
Jigga, if you do not understand the dimishing return on IR retained by CO2 then you have not even begun to read about this topic. I am exactly correct in that regard. That is well known. It's even in the IPCC report. That should be your bible I think. You can't ignore your own scripture. Either the UN is correct or they are not. You can't pick and choose in regard to credibility. I say they are not credible. IF you say they are credible, then you need to be prepared to defend a reasonable portion of their claims. I caution you in this regard. They are extremely hard to defend.
GSwift7
1.4 / 5 (7) Jul 19, 2010
Wow, caliban, if you dispute my claims then present something concrete to dispute them. I'm curious about your sources that dispute me. I'll take the time to read up if you have credible sorces. You know I will.
Eric_B
2 / 5 (5) Jul 19, 2010
Scrib - "It's as relevant as the size of my genitalia."

I am so sorry genetics left you with the short end of the stick!
blank_black
3 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2010
Scrib - "It's as relevant as the size of my genitalia."

I am so sorry genetics left you with the short end of the stick!


get a life Eric, your comment is irrelevant here and only makes you look stupider than you already are. if you have nothing relevant or interesting to comment about then shut it!
Skeptic_Heretic
3.2 / 5 (5) Jul 19, 2010
Jigga, if you do not understand the dimishing return on IR retained by CO2 then you have not even begun to read about this topic. I am exactly correct in that regard. That is well known. It's even in the IPCC report. That should be your bible I think. You can't ignore your own scripture. Either the UN is correct or they are not. You can't pick and choose in regard to credibility. I say they are not credible. IF you say they are credible, then you need to be prepared to defend a reasonable portion of their claims. I caution you in this regard. They are extremely hard to defend.

Except you're going the wrong way with this.

An increase in CO2 will show diminishing returns only in what it completely absorbs and redirects back to the point of origin. That isn't what we're looking at.

The relevence is the delay in escape of IR, not the total capture or perpetual delay. Any increase in CO2 will increase this delay by a relative amount that follows a linear scale.
marjon
1 / 5 (6) Jul 19, 2010
The relevence is the delay in escape of IR, not the total capture or perpetual delay. Any increase in CO2 will increase this delay by a relative amount that follows a linear scale.

But the source, the sun, is essentially fixed on input.
If what you say is true, the dry deserts should be warming at night with increasing CO2.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2010
But the source, the sun, is essentially fixed on input.
If what you say is true, the dry deserts should be warming at night with increasing CO2.

If you only count CO2, they are. Marjon, pour out a glass of water. Now pour out another glass, same volume, and put a lid, with a hole, on it. The input hasn't changed (the volume of water) but the time it takes for said amount of water to leave the glass increases. Now shrink the hole, but never remove it entirely, you'll find there's a relationship between the size of the hole and the amount of time it takes for the water molecules to exit the glass/lid arrangement. The source of the IR we're talking about is the Earth, not the Sun. Secondly, the sun is far from static.

This is analogus to the escape of IR from the earth through the atmosphere.
stanfrax
1 / 5 (4) Jul 20, 2010
this happends to fall in line with mayan and hopi calenders - which calls for the transition of every bidpeadle type of hairless primate on this planet
Skeptic_Heretic
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 20, 2010
this happends to fall in line with mayan and hopi calenders - which calls for the transition of every bidpeadle type of hairless primate on this planet
No, and no.

When your calendar runs out do you assume the world is going to end or do you get a new calendar?
SteveL
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2010
In atmospherical terms: "the biggest change in 43 years" for anything - isn't really something to get excited about. 43 years worth of records out of the billions of years such a system has been in place tells me that we are basically ignorant about the whole process and don't have nearly enough data to make any valid assumptions. Our atmosphere is incredibly dynamic and there are variables that the experts still argue about today. Presuming to make any conclusions with so little information is a bit of a stretch. Like the man said: "Something is going on that we do not understand," says Emmert."

As for calenders, well, Y2K didn't see the end of our civilization, nor did the Hale-Bopp comet. In the early 80's I remember some religions stating that a rare alignment of the planets was going to end the world. Well, the world is still here. "It" may happen some day, but not because some ancient calander runs out. Perhaps they just didn't need a calendar that outlasts them.
getgoa
not rated yet Jul 21, 2010
On earth we are already at over the rise in carbon dioxide limits for temp. most articles have mentioned the specifics about .x degrees celsius rise in the temp. for oceans.

The article does not have the funding to answer the phenomenom witnessed-- we cannot directly measure the thermosphere in data sets to get to a better result not because we don't have the instruments or knowledge it is because of money. And so the equation for knowing the difference in carbon dioxide concentratrions in ratio to the solar minimum/solar radiation from sphere to sphere is? Direct measurements.
Caliban
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 22, 2010
Wow, caliban, if you dispute my claims then present something concrete to dispute them. I'm curious about your sources that dispute me. I'll take the time to read up if you have credible sorces. You know I will.


Well, G- you should, by now, be aware of where and why we disagree on this issue, as I've explicitly stated before. However, rather than go into again in depth, I'll point out Skeptic's rebuttal of your Thermosperic CO2 heat loss conundrum, and to VestaR's comment, I'll just add the additional CO2 burden added to the system through historic deforestation(and man-made carrying capacity changes for CO2 in general), which equates to some TRILLIONS of CO2 dumped into the environment through human activity. Of course, some of that goes into the ocean CO2 sink, but as the oceans heat up, that CO2 is outgassed. The radiative forcing caused by CO2 is unremittent.

stanfrax
not rated yet Jul 22, 2010
this happends to fall in line with mayan and hopi calenders - which calls for the transition of every bidpeadle type of hairless primate on this planet
No, and no.

When your calendar runs out do you assume the world is going to end or do you get a new calendar?

the world will be here - the choice is transition so we can
Joshua_Seymour
1 / 5 (3) Jul 26, 2010
Maybe the other 60% of change that is supposedly unaccounted for has something to do with the "Galactic Federation of Light" that is assisting us in the process of Earth's Ascension? Sometimes scientists can be so arrogant. Remember, we don't know what we don't know! We don't even know what don't know!
stanfrax
1 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2010
i know nothing of ufos - the calenders are based star charts and have been put there to show time scales and patterns and it calls for transition - what that means is entily up to mankind

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