Solar storms drain charged particles from large parts of Earth's ionosphere

"We don't know exactly what causes the depletion," said NASA researcher Attila Komjathy.

By Brooks Hays

April 11 (UPI) -- Solar storms are mostly known for flooding Earth's ionosphere with an excess of charged particles. But new research shows the storms can also drain the electric charge from large parts of the upper atmosphere.

Scientists made the discovery while studying the affects of a 2014 solar storm that disturbed the ionosphere above Earth's northern latitudes, including Greenland. They published their analysis in the journal Radio Science.


The storm was triggered by a pair of coronal mass ejections from the sun. When the sun hurls a cloud of electrically charged particles into interplanetary space, disturbances in the magnetic field propagate outward. The barrage of particles and magnetic perturbations then collide with Earth's magnetic field, geomagnetic storms occur, and yield electromagnetic turbulence and an array of complex physical processes.

Observations from a global navigation satellite system showed the 2014 storm flooded patches of the upper atmosphere above Greenland with charged particles. But just south of theses charged patches, readings showed areas as large as 300 to 600 miles wide nearly devoid of charged particles.

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According to Per Hoeg of the National Space Research Institute at the Technical University of Denmark, the patches' electrons were "almost vacuumed out."


The mix of electrons and ions in the ionosphere, the highest layer of Earth's atmosphere, bounce radio waves back towards Earth and play an important role in the the functioning of GPS and other satellite communication systems. Both an excess and a dearth of charged particles can disrupt these systems.

"We don't know exactly what causes the depletion," Attila Komjathy, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cal., said in a news release. "One possible explanation is that electrons are recombining with positively charged ions until there are no excess electrons. There could also be redistribution -- electrons being displaced and pushed away from the region, not only horizontally but vertically."

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