Detecting solar flare 'false alarms'

From DOE/PRINCETON PLASMA PHYSICS LABORATORY

Description of mechanism that halts solar eruptions 

This solar flare occurred at the peak of the solar cycle in October 2014 with no observed eruptions. PPPL researchers say this is a promising candidate for studying the effect of guide magnetic fields. CREDIT NASA

This solar flare occurred at the peak of the solar cycle in October 2014 with no observed eruptions. PPPL researchers say this is a promising candidate for studying the effect of guide magnetic fields. CREDIT NASA

Among the most feared events in space physics are solar eruptions, massive explosions that hurl millions of tons of plasma gas and radiation into space. These outbursts can be deadly: if the first moon-landing mission had encountered one, the intense radiation could have been fatal to the astronauts. And when eruptions reach the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, the contact can create geomagnetic storms that disrupt cell phone service, damage satellites and knock out power grids.

NASA is eager to know when an eruption is coming and when what looks like the start of an outburst is just a false alarm. Knowing the difference could affect the timing of future space missions such as journeys to Mars, and show when steps to protect satellites, power systems and other equipment need to be taken.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), researchers led by physicist Clayton Myers have identified a mechanism that may halt eruptions before they leave the sun. The finding, reported in the December 24-31 issue of Nature magazine, provides a potentially important way to distinguish the start of explosions from buildups that will fail. This work was supported by the DOE office of Science.

The violent eruptions, called “coronal mass ejections,” stem from a sudden release of magnetic energy that is stored in the sun’s corona, the outermost layer of the star. This energy is often found in what are called “magnetic flux ropes,” massive arched structures that can twist and turn like earthly twine. When these long-lived structures twist and destabilize, they can either erupt out into the solar system or fail and collapse back toward the sun.

The researchers found in laboratory experiments that such failures occur when the guide magnetic field — a force that runs along the flux rope — is strong enough to keep the rope from twisting and destabilizing. Under these conditions, the guide field interacts with electric currents in the flux rope to produce a dynamic force that halts the eruptions. PPPL has discovered the importance of this force, called the “toroidal field tension force,” which is missing from existing models of solar eruptions.

The researchers discovered this importance using the Laboratory’s Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX), the world’s leading device for studying how magnetic fields in plasma converge and violently snap apart. The scientists modified the device to produce both a flux rope, which stores a significant amount of energy that seeks to drive the rope outward, and a “potential magnetic field” like the ones that enclose the rope in the solar corona.

This potential magnetic field is composed of magnetic “strapping” and “guide” fields, each of which provides restraining forces. Eruptions burst forth when the restraining forces in the strapping field become too weak to hold the rope down, creating what is called a “torus instability” that shoots plasma into space. The guide field, which reduces the twist in the flux rope, had long been thought to be of secondary importance.

But the researchers found that the guide field can play an important role in halting eruptions. When the flux rope starts to move outward in the presence of a sufficiently powerful guide field, the plasma undergoes an internal reconfiguration — or “self-organization” — that causes the eruption to lose energy and collapse. “The presence of a substantial guide field should therefore indicate a reduced probability of eruption,” said Myers.

Solar physicists should thus be on the lookout for guide fields, which can be found in relatively simple reconstructions of the sun’s potential magnetic field. One promising candidate for study is the largest active region in the peak solar cycle that took place in October 2014, which produced many large flares but no observed eruptions. Preliminary analysis of this region shows that a number of these flares were associated with failed eruptions that could have been caused by the mechanism the MRX experiments found.

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PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

53 thoughts on “Detecting solar flare 'false alarms'

    • “I’m just gobsmacked that NASA still does some actual science.”
      I am just gobsmacked that the US Dept. of Energy and it’s Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) have never heard of the Nobel Prize winning “Father of Plasma Physics,” Hannes Alfvén or read any of his work.
      Or for that matter that they have never heard of Kristian Birkeland, who discovered the “Birkeland Currents” they intentionally call “flux ropes” to avoid acknowledging the man who discovered the cause of the aurorae.
      I realize that I am commenting way above my intellectual and educational pay grade, but I can read and think.
      I guess the real difference is that I am not dependent on a government grant and/or subject to professional assignation by peer reviewing gate-keepers who are.

      • I am just gobsmacked that the US Dept. of Energy and it’s Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) have had the temerity and courage to mention ELECTRIC CURRENTS in the same breath as magnetic flux ropes and the Sun.
        They have cautiously placed their finger on something that will cause a shocking explosion (inductive voltage spike see : http://www.daycounter.com/Articles/Inductive-Voltage-Spike.phtml) in the physics departments of academia.
        “The researchers found in laboratory experiments that such failures occur when the guide magnetic field — a force that runs along the flux rope — is strong enough to keep the rope from twisting and destabilizing. Under these conditions, the guide field interacts with ELECTRIC CURRENTS in the flux rope to produce a dynamic force that halts the eruptions. PPPL has discovered the importance of this force, called the “toroidal field tension force,” which is missing from existing models of solar eruptions.”

      • Also have noticed that past discoveries are shelved until the ‘surprise finding’ can be attributed to a current scientist and noted as a new concept.

  1. As an avid fan of helioviewer.org this theory matches my observation well. I have made several movies of plasma being twisted in the air and sucked back into the AR. This should also provide more insight into magnetic filaments and Hyder flares.

  2. Looks like PPPL has found a way to predict CME duds and there certainly is some savings when there is no need to take unnecessary protective measures. Good job. But when a CME does get ejected, how are we any further ahead of the game? The only option we’ve ever had is “duck and cover” so to speak.

    • We could follow the warmist/liberal/greenie play-book and
      (1) Publish a paper that states CMEs are caused by CO2
      (2) Demonstrate, shout, and make a huge nuisance
      (3) Create a model that proves CMEs are impossible
      (4) Demand trillion dollar funding to study CMEs
      (5) Demand legislation making CMEs illegal
      (6) Blame CMEs on George Bush.
      (7) Write a stern letter to the Times condemning the Sun
      (8) Call for a world-wide Socialist government

      • I think you are on to something! While they are at it they could settle the cosmological questions in one fell swoop. Just have congress repeal the law of gravity. If the sun explodes and the galaxy flies apart, then the “Big Bang” gravity model is right. If not, maybe experimental science will once again challenge the mathemagicians.

    • @ jorgekafkazar and Mark and both cats
      (Wait! Aren’t cats anarchists? Might want to leave them out of this, Mark.)
      DOH! How could I be so stupid?!? The answer always,ALWAYS is to ban fossil fuels and create a one-world socialist government
      It doesn’t matter what the problem is – hangnails, halitosis, flood, drought, the heartbreak of psoriasis, puppy won’t paper train, lost luggage, Sunday newspaper is late, mocha lattes taste funny – we need to ban fossil fuels and create a one-world socialist government.
      Thanks, guys. I won’t make that silly mistake again.

  3. This is serious business. In 1859 a solar storm wiped out telegraph lines. There were no power lines at the time or it would have wiped those out too.

    In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the US alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.

    The GDP of the USofA is about 17 trillion. Two and a half trillion is a big bite of that.
    wiki

    • And you forgot to mention the fact that large parts of the “developed” world would join the third world in about a minute once they realize it could take months if not years to get the power switch to work again.
      No heat, no computers, no internet, no gas pumps, no vehicles ( as components would get fried) and you can add your own electricity related issues. ( Dang I WAS gonna wish everybody Happy New Yearr! Oh well Thank god we are heading for a minimum ( although today there is a CME , an M1 heading straight for us).

      • Your car wouldn’t get fried. Power lines only get fried because they are miles long.
        Computers would only get fried if they were plugged in and didn’t have adequate surge protection.
        Even the power network would just shut down as the voltage protection circuits kicked in. It would take a few hours to bring it back up, but most of it would survive unhurt.
        The reason the telegraph network failed in 1859 was because they didn’t have any kind of surge protection built into it. Nobody realized it was needed.
        CME’s impact electrical networks by causing distortions in the earth’s magnetic field. This causes changes in the magnetic field at ground level, which in turn couples with any piece of metal. The longer the piece of metal, the greater the voltage that gets built up. Unlike EMPs, the energy build up is slow, which makes it easier to shunt.

      • Vuk:
        Geomagnetic storms (earth’s response to CMEs) are about 20% more frequent in the even than the odd cycle, this is to do with polarities of the solar (22 year cycle) and earth’s magnetic fields being same or opposing
        No, 1st of all there is no such tendency, 2nd: the polarity changes at maximum while the even-odd designation changes at minimum, so there is no relation even-odd and polarity. You have been told this several times before.

      • TRM

        t missed us. In July 2012 a huge Carrington level event went off but we were one week out of the way. Another week and we’d have been in the cross hairs:

        So, until the mid 1870’s there was no way to detect such CME’s if they did hit earth. (No long-distance copper wires anywhere on earth.) No way to measure anything that cannot be detected, and, if it hit earth, there was no effect.
        So, what is the probability of a CME now hitting earth? Twice per 150 years? Ten per 150 years?

      • Geomagnetic storms (earth’s response to CMEs) are about 20% more frequent in the even than the odd cycle, this is to do with polarities of the solar (22 year cycle) and earth’s magnetic fields being same or opposing, despite the fact that the odd cycles have 13% higher total sunspot count.
        http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/odd_even.gif
        CMEs of the Carrington event intensity are not that infrequent, but with 360 degrees of solar action, at 1 AU distance the earth it is not particularly large target.

      • vukcevic,
        Does that mean that once the earth’s magnetic field finishes reversing in a couple hundred years, that geomagnetic storms will become more frequent in odd cycles?

  4. Ontario, Canada is about to get it’s @ss kicked by the same storm that hit Texas….But. for us, it’s freezing rain and high winds, the same storm structure that took out the Quebec grid 10 or so years ago….Hmm…., I guess I better go buy some coal to burn in my bath tub to keep warm because WE have no other back up anymore, the liberals took care of that !!…Food may become scarce……my cat will not be happy !

      • @ Marcus , it took a second ( Nasty thought Marcus) but there are a “menu”s or two on the Net. You can bet your cat the minute you look at her will of course stop catching mice stop give you hugs and shortly there after disappear.

      • Marcus, not sure of the BQ recipe, but did hear of the S.East Asian cookbook of “101 Ways to Wok a Dog”. Would that help?

    • The Weather Channel is calling it, “Winter Storm Goliath”. They are naming thunderstorms now, for some reason.
      It came through here (Oklahoma) yesterday and dumped about 10 inches of rain on us. The creek behind my house was about as high as I’ve ever seen it get, but it dropped about 10 feet overnight, after the rain stopped.
      Good luck to you.
      TA

  5. vuk,
    Sorry – I need to learn & understand much more helio-science before I can fully appreciate your excellent diagram, although the black arc marked ‘shock’ certainly suggests a ‘Carrington Event’.
    But –
    H.R. December 28, 2015 at 9:57 am
    looks – to me – to have encapsulated the argument.
    Explanations why I am wrong are welcome.
    Now – jorgeka I appreciate your précis of the watermelon gameplan, but H.R. still seems to state the state of the art [so far . . . .].
    Auto – still seeking to learn [we all are]

    • Ok, I’ll have a go at it. Normally space is filled with the ordinary solar field moving away from the sun at velocity often much lower than that of a CME produced by sun’s explosion. Shock wave is result of the CME’s tendency to sweep ordinary solar wind out of the way. I believe that the NASA’s ACE explorers have actually recorded such events.

  6. Very interesting post. Thank you. The satellite era with abundant data has ushered in a new and exciting phase in the field of solar physics. Yet, everything in nature is not deterministic because there is an element of randomness in all aspects of nature. Except for a few fringe (and Asian) solar physicists such as Kim, Watari, and Zhou, randomness in solar activity has not been fully appreciated. I can post the citations if anyone is interested.

      • Zhou, S. (2014). Low-dimensional chaos and fractal properties of long-term sunspot activity. Research in Astronomy and Physics , Vol. 14 No. 1, 104–112.
        Watari, S. (1995). Fractal dimensions of solar activity. Tokyo, Japan: Communications Research Laboratory.
        Kim, R. (2006). Fractal Dimension and Maximum Sunspot Number in Solar Cycle. JOURNAL OF ASTRONOMY AND SPACE SCIENCE , 23:227-236.

      • @Jamal
        > … there is a randomness in all aspects of nature…
        Yes, but IMO the most interesting (i.e. informative) aspects of nature are its non-random aspects. To see this, imagine that an analysis of events revealed completely random uniform distributions at all scales of space and time. So very boring (non-informative). It is precisely where there are changes in variance and bias that produce interesting and informative data (heteroskedasticity etc.)
        And from skimming the abstracts you provided (thanks) I think that these researchers are using fractal dimensions to characterize solar processes mathematically such that “irregularities” in randomness reveal dependencies between solar events and mechanisms.
        Fractal dimensions are somewhat different than the usual geometric dimensions. Both denote how objects can “fill” space, but fractal dimensions also describe the complexity of objects, at different scales. Fractal dimension depends on scale, so unlike geometric dimensions, fractal dimensionality varies according to the scale at which it is measured.
        So, Watari for example, seems to be saying that solar processes such as sun spots can be characterized by computing the fractal dimension at different time scales. Features derived from these measurements apparently can be useful for modeling solar events, predicting/explaining dimensional “irregularities” correlated to solar epochs and events.
        http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00795669
        It occurs to me that this technique of using fractal dimensions at different climate epochs might be useful for modeling “climate change” events.

  7. ” These outbursts can be deadly: if the first moon-landing mission had encountered one, the intense radiation could have been fatal to the astronauts. ”
    My question is why just Apollo 11 and not the other Apollo landings? Did 12-17 have someshielding 11 didn’t? It seems to me this danger exists to any manned excursion beyond LEO sans a lot of shielding.
    And as for Mars mission timing… WTF? These super large CME events can’t be predicted with the leadtime necessary to any reasonable level of confidence to make those predictions worth putting in the go/no go decision equation.
    Sounds like someone is just trying to justify more money to study the modeling of chaotic event predictions.

    • (they were all affected, haven’t you looked at any of their biographies post moon landing? Maybe that’s why they stop going up there) /sarc off

  8. It is unusual for Dr. S to miss solar thread. I hope he is on a long holiday somewhere, I just looked at his sunspot page
    http://www.leif.org/research/TSI-SORCE-Cycle-24.png
    As you can see it has not been updated for some weeks now. Hope that good Dr. S is well.
    Dr. S we hope to see you soon, and since we missed you around Christmas, I’ll take this opportunity to wish you a happy New Year and most of all the best of health.
    Vuk

  9. Did I read “Electricity, magnetism, plasma and Sun” all in one article?…. Five years ago that was heresy. People were excommunicated on science forums like this for pointing to observations that might indicate that electricity or electrified plasma played a role in the Universe…..What’s changed?

    • Nothing has changed. The role of electricity and magnetism in the solar dynamo and solar winds is well understood and appreciated. The heresy is the suggestion that all solar processes are caused solely by electromagnetic phenomena.

  10. Fresh from rereading Under a Green Sky by P Ward and it is clear that we are examining one part of the elephant. Still. We like to believe it is cosmic rays that decimate life but what if it is much more simple.. Too much sulfur for example. Isnt it strange that camels were indigenous to NA and then POOF were gone? PEM in ruminants.

  11. Markus,
    guess I better go buy some coal to burn in my bath tub to keep warm because WE have no other
    back up anymore, the liberals took care of that !!
    ____
    I read
    Yes, there’s interesting problems out there –
    in the meantime there’s enough unsolved down here. *
    A good 2016 – Hans
    * and Yes again, thats our first demand of science.

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