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NCAR Research Sheds Light on Solar Storms

May 26, 2005

BOULDER—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 Earth’s 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 NCAR’s 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 year’s Karen Harvey Prize. The award, by the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society, 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. Those ejections that are pointed toward Earth can set off disturbances when they reach the upper atmosphere, affecting satellites, ground-based communications systems, and power grids.

Sarah Gibson
Sarah Gibson struck a pose for the camera as she gazed at her first solar eclipse in 1991. Behind her on the far left is NCAR's Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, the home of state-of-the-art coronameters to capture detailed images of the Sun's outermost region.

For her research, Gibson turned to a unique dataset: white-light images of the lower reaches of the Sun’s enormous halo, called the corona. Taken by HAO’s 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 Mark-IV 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.”

The research may put to rest an important debate among solar physicists over whether magnetic flux ropes can form prior to an ejection or are merely present when an ejection takes place. Gibson’s findings suggest that, to understand the forces that create CMEs, solar scientists should use magnetic flux ropes as the starting point of computer models of the massive storms.

To conduct her study, Gibson used images from the Mark-IV K-Coronameter to observe dark, lower-density areas, known as cavities, that can be formed by the strong, sheared magnetic fields of magnetic flux ropes. Gibson, along with HAO collaborators David Foster and Joan Burkepile, analyzed 13 cavity systems from November 1999 to January 2004. Seven of these systems could be associated with CMEs, and four cavities were directly observed by the Mark-IV telescope to erupt as CMEs. Gibson used a second technique to identify an additional eight CMEs for analysis that were observed by Mark-IV to erupt from already-formed cavities. She found those cases by gathering images of CMEs and backtracking to see whether cavities existed at those CME sites before each eruption.

One of Gibson’s next steps will be to analyze cavities that result in CMEs to determine whether they have identifiable characteristics that may help scientists forecast a CME. Her preliminary findings indicate that a cavity begins to bulge and rise higher in the corona just before erupting. Cavities may also darken and become more sharply defined prior to eruption.

Solar images
These images, taken by NCAR’s Mark-IV K-Coronameter on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, capture features in the Sun's corona (blue area). The black disk in the middle obscures the Sun itself. The image on the right, taken on July 22, 2002, shows a cavity in the corona (indicated by arrow). The image on the left, from November 19, 1999, shows a coronal mass ejection (indicated by arrow) that has erupted from a cavity. Watch an animation of the November 19 coronal mass ejection.
Gibson will also try to determine how widespread cavities are, and if it is possible that most, or even all, CMEs are preceded by the formation of magnetic flux ropes. Beginning next year, she will supplement the Mauna Loa observations with data from a pair of new NASA satellites, known as STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory). Instruments aboard STEREO will provide stereoscopic measurements and 24-hour coverage of the lower solar corona, significantly increasing the chances of directly observing cavities erupting into CMEs.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research and UCAR Office of Programs are operated by UCAR under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any of UCAR's sponsors.

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