The sun is a dynamic and active star that constantly produces spectacular phenomena on its surface and in its atmosphere.
One of these phenomena is the solar tornado, a swirling column of plasma that can reach heights of several Earths and temperatures of millions of degrees Celsius. In this blog post, we will explore what solar tornadoes are, how they form, and what they can tell us about the sun and its impact on our planet.
What are solar tornadoes?
Solar tornadoes are not exactly like the tornadoes we see on Earth, which are caused by wind shear and atmospheric instability. Solar tornadoes are more like giant loops of magnetized plasma that rise from the sun’s surface and twist around due to the sun’s rotation and magnetic field. These loops are also known as filaments or prominences, depending on whether they are seen from above or from the side.
Solar tornadoes can last for hours or days, sometimes remaining stable for months before erupting into space. They can also vary in size and shape, from thin threads to massive arches. Some of them can reach heights of tens or hundreds of thousands of kilometers, dwarfing our planet in comparison.
How do solar tornadoes form?
Solar tornadoes are part of the complex and dynamic magnetic system of the sun. The sun is made of hot gas and plasma that constantly moves and flows due to convection and differential rotation. This motion generates electric currents that create magnetic fields that pierce through the sun’s surface and extend into space.
Some of these magnetic fields are twisted and tangled by the sun’s rotation and convection, forming loops that rise above the surface. These loops can trap plasma inside them, creating filaments or prominences that appear as dark or bright features against the sun’s background.
Sometimes, these loops become unstable and break apart, releasing their plasma and magnetic energy into space. This can trigger a solar eruption, such as a flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME), which can send shock waves and particles across the solar system.
What can solar tornadoes tell us about the sun?
Solar tornadoes are important for studying the sun’s magnetic activity and its influence on our planet. By observing how solar tornadoes form, evolve, and erupt, scientists can learn more about the physical processes that govern the sun’s behavior and its cycle of activity.
Solar tornadoes can also help us understand how the sun affects our space environment and our technological systems. When solar tornadoes erupt, they can launch CMEs that can interact with Earth’s magnetic field and cause geomagnetic storms. These storms can disrupt satellite communications, navigation systems, power grids, and even endanger astronauts in orbit.
By monitoring solar tornadoes and their eruptions, scientists can improve their forecasts of space weather and its potential impacts on our society.
A recent example of a solar tornado
On March 17, 2023, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured a stunning video of a solar tornado spinning above the sun’s surface. The tornado was part of a polar crown filament, a long and thin structure that forms around the sun’s poles. The tornado grew to an estimated height of 14 Earths (about 180,000 kilometers) and had a temperature of several million degrees Celsius.
The video shows how the tornado twisted and turned for several hours before erupting into a cloud of magnetized gas on March 18. The eruption hurled plasma into space at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second. Fortunately, the eruption was not directed toward Earth, so it did not pose any threat to our planet.
The video also shows how the SDO spacecraft tracked the tornado using different wavelengths of light that reveal different layers and temperatures of the sun’s atmosphere. By combining these images, scientists can get a more complete picture of the structure and dynamics of the solar tornado.
You can watch the video here:
Solar tornadoes are fascinating phenomena that showcase the beauty and power of our star. They are also valuable sources of information for understanding the sun’s magnetic activity and its effects on our planet. By observing solar tornadoes with advanced instruments like SDO, scientists can unravel some of the mysteries of our star and improve our preparedness for space weather events.