Another Factor that Impacts our Climate
Just when we were getting confident that we understood the most important factors affecting the earth’s weather and climate, new research creates some surprises. UCLA atmospheric scientists have discovered a previously unknown basic mode of energy transfer from the solar wind to the Earth's magnetosphere. The research, federally funded by the National Science Foundation, could improve the safety and reliability of spacecraft that operate in the upper atmosphere. It could also help us understand the weather and previously unknown affects on our climate.
"It's like something else is heating the atmosphere besides the sun. This discovery is like finding it got hotter when the sun went down," said Larry Lyons, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a co-author of the research, which is in press in two companion papers in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
The sun, in addition to emitting radiation, emits a stream of ionized particles called the solar wind that affects the Earth and other planets in the solar system. The solar wind, which carries the particles from the sun's magnetic field, known as the interplanetary magnetic field, takes about three or four days to reach the Earth. When the charged electrical particles approach the Earth, they carve out a highly magnetized region — the magnetosphere — which surrounds and protects the Earth.
Charged particles carry currents, which cause significant modifications in the Earth's magnetosphere. This region is where communications spacecraft operate and where the energy releases in space known as substorms wreak havoc on satellites, power grids and communications systems.
The rate at which the solar wind transfers energy to the magnetosphere can vary widely, but what determines the rate of energy transfer is unclear.
"We thought it was known, but we came up with a major surprise," said Lyons, who conducted the research with Heejeong Kim, an assistant researcher in the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and other colleagues.
"This is where everything gets started," Lyons said. "Any important variations in the magnetosphere occur because there is a transfer of energy from the solar wind to the particles in the magnetosphere. The first critical step is to understand how the energy gets transferred from the solar wind to the magnetosphere."
The interplanetary magnetic field fluctuates greatly in magnitude and direction.
"We all have thought for our entire careers - I learned it as a graduate student - that this energy transfer rate is primarily controlled by the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field," Lyons said. "The closer to southward-pointing the magnetic field is, the stronger the energy transfer rate is, and the stronger the magnetic field is in that direction. If it is both southward and big, the energy transfer rate is even bigger."
However, Lyons, Kim and their colleagues analyzed radar data that measure the strength of the interaction by measuring flows in the ionosphere, the part of Earth's upper atmosphere ionized by solar radiation. The results surprised them.
For more information: http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/21872