The recent solar activity did more than spark pretty auroras around the poles. 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. Although the influx of solar energy puffed up the atmosphere, increasing drag on low-orbiting satellites, it caused fewer disruptions to electronic infrastructure such as electronic grids than some expected. It also offered plenty of eye candy, sparking dazzling auroras in many places.
“This was the biggest dose of heat we’ve received from a solar storm since 2005. It was a big event, and shows how solar activity can directly affect our planet.” Martin Mlynczak of NASA Langley Research Center
The solar eruptions began on March 6, and on March 8 a coronal mass ejection — a wave of charged particles — smashed into Earth's magnetic field. For the next three days, the upper atmosphere, known as the thermosphere, absorbed 26 billion kilowatt-hours of energy. Infrared radiation from carbon dioxide and nitric oxide, the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere, radiated 95 percent of that total back into space.
The SABER is an instrument aboard a 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 energy balance of air hundreds of km above our planet’s surface. Carbon dioxide and nitric oxide are natural thermostats. When the upper atmosphere (or ‘thermosphere’) heats up, these molecules try as hard as they can to shed that heat back into space.
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. Energetic particles rained down on the upper atmosphere, depositing their energy where they hit. The action produced spectacular auroras around the poles and significant upper atmospheric heating all around the globe.
More sunspots flinging more CMEs toward Earth adds up to more opportunities for SABER to study the heating effect of solar storms.