“Space Tsunamis” Are Behind a Once Puzzling Cosmic Phenomenon

June 21, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Illustration to explain the dynamics of the ultra-relativistic third Van Allen radiation belt
Photo credit: Andy Kale

They create a third Van Allen belt.

Luckily for us, Earth’s magnetosphere acts like a protective shield — deflecting and absorbing plasma ejected from the sun. Often, the plasma can result in beautiful auroral displays, but sometimes the solar wind can be violent, generating extreme space weather storms, including “space tsunamis.”

According to recent research published in the journal Nature Physics, these newly discovered space tsunamis create an unusual Van Allen radiation belt — which is just trapped high-energy protons and electrons that partly surround the Earth. There are usually two belts, the inner and outer, but the tsunami creates a third. Intense plasma waves transport the outer part of the belt radiation into interplanetary space, creating the previously unexplained third belt.

Van Allen belts were discovered back in 1958. However, it was not until 2013 when NASA’s Van Allen Probes spotted, for the first time, an unexplained third Van Allen belt. It lasted for a few weeks before vanishing. And until now, its formation had remained a mystery.

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"Remarkably, we observed huge plasma waves," Ian Mann, physics professor at the University of Alberta (UofA) in Canada and lead author of the study, said in a UofA news release. "Rather like a space tsunami, they slosh the radiation belts around and very rapidly wash away the outer part of the belt, explaining the structure of the enigmatic third radiation belt."

These radiation waves can also be a threat to satellites. "Space radiation poses a threat to the operation of the satellite infrastructure upon which our twenty-first century technological society relies," added Mann. "Understanding how such radiation is energized and lost is one of the biggest challenges for space research."

High-energy radiation is a satellite killer, and since we rely on GPS and satellite-based telecommunications, we don’t want them damaged. They are also really expensive to fix. In fact, according to a recent socio-economic study of the impact of a severe space weather storm, the damage to space-based and terrestrial infrastructure could be up to $2 trillion USD. Yikes.

Fortunately, governments have begun to consider the dangers associated with cosmic phenomena. In 2015, the White House announced a Space Weather Action Plan to mitigate the effects of extreme space weather.

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