New research from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) links a particular magnetic structure on the Sun with the genesis of powerful solar storms that can buffet Earths atmosphere. The research may enable scientists to create more accurate computer models of the solar storms, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and could eventually point the way to forecasting the storms days before they occur. Sarah Gibson, a scientist at NCARs High Altitude Observatory (HAO), will present her findings at the American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans on Thursday, May 26. Her invited talk is in recognition of winning this years Karen Harvey Prize. Awarded by the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society, the prize recognizes an early-career scientist who has produced exceptional solar research. CMEs are a focus of solar research because they suddenly and violently release billions of tons of matter and charged particles that escape from the Sun and speed through space. Ejections pointed toward Earth can set off disturbances when they reach the upper atmosphere, affecting satellites, ground-based communications systems, and power grids.
For her research, Gibson turned to a unique data set: white-light images of the lower reaches of the Suns enormous halo, called the corona. Taken by NCARs Mark-IV K-Coronameter on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the images are sensitive to density alone, avoiding the ambiguity of most other solar images that depend on both temperature and density. The images revealed that lower-density regions in the corona consistent with twisted magnetic field lines can form prior to a CME. The twisted areas, known as magnetic flux ropes, store massive amounts of energy.
"The structures indicate a magnetic system that has enough energy to fuel a CME," Gibson explains. "But their presence is not, by itself, an indication that a CME is about to occur. For that, we need to look at additional characteristics."
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