Solar storm dumps gigawatts into Earth's upper atmosphere

March 23, 2012 Dr. Tony Phillips
A surge of infrared radiation from nitric oxide molecules on March 8-10, 2012, signals the biggest upper-atmospheric heating event in seven years. Credit: SABER/TIMED.

A recent flurry of eruptions on the sun did more than spark pretty auroras around the poles.  NASA-funded researchers say the solar storms of March 8th through 10th dumped enough energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every residence in New York City for two years.

“This was the biggest dose of heat we’ve received from a solar storm since 2005,” says Martin Mlynczak of NASA Langley Research Center.  “It was a big event, and shows how solar activity can directly affect our planet.”

Mlynczak is the associate principal investigator for the SABER instrument onboard NASA’s TIMED satellite.  SABER monitors infrared emissions from Earth’s upper atmosphere, in particular from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitric oxide (NO), two substances that play a key role in the balance of air hundreds of km above our planet’s surface.

“Carbon dioxide and nitric oxide are natural thermostats,” explains James Russell of Hampton University, SABER’s principal investigator.  “When the upper atmosphere (or ‘thermosphere’) heats up, these molecules try as hard as they can to shed that heat back into space.”

Earth's atmosphere lights up at infrared wavelengths during the solar storms of March 8-10, 2010. A ScienceCast video explains the physics of this phenomenon.

That’s what happened on March 8th when a coronal mass ejection (CME) propelled in our direction by an X5-class solar flare hit Earth’s magnetic field.  (On the “Richter Scale of Solar Flares,” X-class flares are the most powerful kind.)  Energetic particles rained down on the , depositing their energy where they hit.  The action produced spectacular around the poles and significant1 upper atmospheric heating all around the globe.

“The thermosphere lit up like a Christmas tree,” says Russell.  “It began to glow intensely at infrared wavelengths as the thermostat effect kicked in.”

For the three day period, March 8th through 10th, the thermosphere absorbed 26 billion kWh of energy.  Infrared radiation from CO2 and NO, the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere, re-radiated 95% of that total back into space.

In human terms, this is a lot of energy.  According to the New York City mayor’s office, an average NY household consumes just under 4700 kWh annually. This means the geomagnetic storm dumped enough energy into the atmosphere to power every home in the Big Apple for two years.

“Unfortunately, there’s no practical way to harness this kind of energy,” says Mlynczak.  “It’s so diffuse and out of reach high above Earth’s surface.  Plus, the majority of it has been sent back into space by the action of CO2 and NO.”

During the heating impulse, the thermosphere puffed up like a marshmallow held over a campfire, temporarily increasing the drag on low-orbiting satellites.  This is both good and bad.  On the one hand, extra drag helps clear space junk out of Earth orbit.  On the other hand, it decreases the lifetime of useful satellites by bringing them closer to the day of re-entry.

The storm is over now, but Russell and Mlynczak expect more to come.

“We’re just emerging from a deep solar minimum,” says Russell.  “The solar cycle is gaining strength with a maximum expected in 2013.”

More sunspots flinging more CMEs toward Earth adds up to more opportunities for SABER to study the heating effect of solar storms. 

“This is a new frontier in the sun-Earth connection,” says Mlynczak, and the data we’re collecting are unprecedented.”

Stay tuned for updates from the top of the atmosphere.

Explore further: Flying through a geomagnetic storm

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not rated yet Mar 23, 2012
4700 KW/ year sounds low for an average
4 / 5 (4) Mar 23, 2012
City living is more energy-efficient than suburban life. For example, during the heating season, all those NY apartments are sharing heat with adjoining apartments, and a similar argument can be made for the cooling season. Also, NY space is costly and the typical dwelling is smaller.
not rated yet Mar 23, 2012
We didn't want all that junk floating around space anyway.

1 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
So, CO2 is a greenhouse gas that absorbs radiation and causes 9-26% (http://en.wikiped...warming) of the global warming in the lower atmosphere, yet it reflects back 95% of the radiation
CO2 and NO, the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere
and cools the planet in the thermosphere?

Is there any published explaination for this duality?
0.9 / 5 (42) Mar 23, 2012
"Is there any published explaination for this duality?" - SteveL

It is basic radiative physics. Atoms or molecules that are small enough, both emit and absorb at quantized energy levels.

A molecule/atom that emits at 22nm will also absorb at 22nm if it has enough energy to do so.

There are two key factors determining the bulk characteristics of a molecular or atomic gas that will determine how it radiates or absorbs.

The first is the particle density of the gas since this influences the probability that radiation emitted within the gas can escape.

The second is the temperature of the gas, which determines to a great degree the frequencies in it's spectra which are most likely to radiate, as well as the thermal broadening of those spectral lines.

In dense gasses radiation emitted from the interior will be absorbed by molecules of the same gas further out, presuming the volume of gas is thick enough. This leads to the diffusion of radiation through a very thick layer of gas, cont
1 / 5 (43) Mar 23, 2012
with each scattering event altering (usually down) the frequency of the re-emitted radiation.

In less dense gasses or volumes that are not optically dense, the emitted radiation has a low probability of interaction with it's own radiation and hence escapes from the bulk largely unchanged.

Radiation from outside of any bulk that has a probability of being absorbed equal to (N) at any median depth also has a probability roughly equal to (N/2) for escaping immediately, with increasing probability of escape for each subsequent scattering event.

3 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2012
What would happen if scientists put a cable from the ground to the upper atmosphere using a series of balloons?
1 / 5 (5) Mar 24, 2012
26 billion kWh of energy => ~.2Whr/m^2

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