Giant 'space hurricanes' may affect satellites

Solar wind impacts on giant ‘space hurricanes’ may affect satellite safety


Could the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Costa Rica set off a hurricane in California? The question has been scrutinized by chaos theorists, stock-market analysts and weather forecasters for decades. For most people, this hypothetical scenario may be difficult to imagine on Earth – particularly when a real disaster strikes.

This visualization of research by K. Nykyri et al., compiled from NASA images and MHD simulations, depicts the near-Earth space with the dayside magnetosphere, magnetotail and boundary layers with giant Kelvin-Helmholtz waves (i.e., ‘space hurricanes’). Nykyri’s study in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, finds that magnetosheath (shocked solar wind) velocity fluctuations affect the growth and properties of the Kelvin-Helmholtz waves. CREDIT K. Nykyri, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Yet, in space, similarly small fluctuations in the solar wind as it streams toward the Earth’s magnetic shield actually can affect the speed and strength of “space hurricanes,” researcher Katariina Nykyri of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has reported.

The study, published on September 19 in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, offers the first detailed description of the mechanism by which solar wind fluctuations can change the properties of so-called space hurricanes, affecting how plasma is transported into the Earth’s magnetic shield, or magnetosphere.

Those “hurricanes” are formed by a phenomenon known as Kelvin-Helmholtz (KH) instability. As plasma from the Sun (solar wind) sweeps across the Earth’s magnetic boundary, it can produce large vortices (about 10,000-40,000 kilometers in size) along the boundary layer, Nykyri explained.

“The KH wave, or space hurricane, is one of the major ways that solar wind transports energy, mass and momentum into the magnetosphere,” said Nykyri, a professor of physics and a researcher with the Center for Space and Atmospheric Research at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Fla., campus. “Fluctuations in solar wind affect how quickly the KH waves grow and how large they become.”

When solar wind speeds are faster, the fluctuations are more powerful, Nykyri reported, and they seed larger space hurricanes that can transport more plasma.

Gaining deeper insights into how solar wind conditions affect space hurricanes may someday provide better space-weather prediction and set the stage for safer satellite navigation through radiation belts, Nykyri said. This is because solar wind can excite ultra-low frequency (ULF) waves by triggering KH instability, which can energize radiation belt particles.

Space hurricanes are universal phenomena, occurring at the boundary layers of Coronal Mass Ejections – giant balls of plasma erupting from the Sun’s hot atmosphere – in the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn and other planets, Nykyri noted.

“KH waves can alter the direction and properties of Coronal Mass Ejections, which eventually affect near-Earth space weather,” Nykyri explained. “For accurate space weather prediction, it is crucial to understand the detailed mechanisms that affect the growth and properties of space hurricanes.”

Furthermore, in addition to playing a role in transporting energy and mass, a recent discovery by Nykyri and her graduate student Thomas W. Moore shows that KH waves also provide an important way of heating plasma by millions of degrees Fahrenheit (Moore et al., Nature Physics, 2016), and therefore may be important for solar coronal heating. It might also be used for transport barrier generation in fusion plasmas.

For the current research, simulations were based on seven years’ worth of measurements of the amplitude and velocity of solar wind fluctuations at the edge of the magnetosphere, as captured by NASA’s THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) spacecraft.


Nykyri’s paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, published by the American Geophysical Union, was titled “Influence of Velocity Fluctuations on the Kelvin-Helmholtz Instability and its Associated Mass Transport.”

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September 19, 2017 12:33 pm

The axis of gyration would necessarily be perpendicular to the incident normal vector and as such would not be the quasi 2-dimensional structure we call hurricanes (although a cross section of the flow might resemble a vortex.
On a cynical note how long before we need to combat anthropogenic solar climate change?

Reply to  rocketscientist
September 19, 2017 12:39 pm

Ionospheric CO2 is making space hurricanes more frequent and destructive!

Reply to  Sixto
September 19, 2017 8:15 pm

Could the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Costa Rica set off a hurricane in California?

very unlikely, they are in two totally separate ocean basins for a start. Also California is on LAND and hurricanes do NOT form or get “set off” over land.
Perhaps those who know nothing about weather events should stop misquoting Lorentz.
The original title of Lorentz’s talks to AAAS was: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? ”
Another media studies undergraduate failure in writing a press release.

Reply to  Sixto
September 19, 2017 8:20 pm

Perhaps the next iteration will be ” can the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China, make a cup of tea at Mar-a-Lago ? ”
It seems the Lorentz’s idea is itself equally sensitive to changes in the initial conditions.

September 19, 2017 12:34 pm

It may be true that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Brazilian jungle can cause a blizzard in Detroit. You will never be able to gather enough data to prove it and you will never be able to build a big enough computer to handle all that data. If, by some miracle, you could gather the data, the measuring instruments and towers on which they are mounted would change the weather and render the poor butterfly’s efforts moot.

Reply to  commieBob
September 19, 2017 1:06 pm

We don’t need to get technical. Just blame Trump! 😉

Reply to  Curious George
September 19, 2017 1:13 pm

How about we blame Trump on CO2?

Reply to  Curious George
September 19, 2017 3:20 pm

“We don’t need to get technical. Just blame Trump! ;-)”
Well, since you mentioned Trump. I just saw him give the most important speech of his political career. He hit on every point. You see his vision of the world, and that he IS going to confront humanity’s enemies. Trump GETS it.
Of course, the Loony, Delusional Left will call Trump a warmonger because they are afraid to confront the evils of the world. They want to pretend that the only problem in the word is the U.S. President.
Too bad Trump wasn’t elected in 1992 or 2000. If he had been president then, we would not be facing the horrendous situation we find ourselves in, in North Korea. There is no more road to kick the can down, and Trump told everyone today. The ONLY acceptable outcome is denuclearization of North Korea, or it will be war, and the Dictator of North Korea will not survive the encounter.
Brilliant speech! Perfect! The world saw a REAL leader today. Bravoe!

Reply to  commieBob
September 19, 2017 1:17 pm

By the time humankind has amassed the knowledge and wherewithal to completely understand and model Earth’s climatic system, we will no longer be interested with Earth’s climatic system.

Reply to  rocketscientist
September 20, 2017 5:40 am

once we have that level of knowledge, we will set up mechanical butterflies to impart energy at just the right point to steer the hurricane away from population centers…of course with our lack of long range thinking, we will just setup for a huge tornadic super-cell that destroys our agricultural output for a season. The city is saved! food comes from the grocery stores and they were all saved, right?

Reply to  commieBob
September 19, 2017 1:22 pm

So by measuring the butterfly we have affected the response of the butterflies effect? We can either know how hard it flaps or which way it flaps, not both.
Heisenberg’s Butterfly! keep it away from Schrodinger’s cat.

Jon Jewett
Reply to  commieBob
September 19, 2017 3:55 pm

Hmmmmm…. “the measuring instruments and towers on which they are mounted would change the weather” Didn’t Heisenberg say that would happen??

Bob Burban
Reply to  Jon Jewett
September 19, 2017 4:46 pm

We can’t be certain …

Reply to  Jon Jewett
September 20, 2017 12:37 am

There is always doubt.
There is no doubt about that. Geoff.

Reply to  commieBob
September 20, 2017 2:55 am

Certainly it can be shown that a flap of a butterflies wings in Brazil is capable of causing a tornado in Texas, if by ’cause’ you mean that in the absence of the first event the second would not happen…
However that is a limitation of language and our current simplistic world-view. If you are a sniper at extreme range and an errant butterfly wing clap causes your round to stray of the expected parabola and miss the president, was his continued existence ’caused’ by that errant breath of wind?
If it takes the co-incidence of n factors to ’cause’ a given result, and the absence of any one of those n factors will NOT give that result, is that result caused by that single factor?
i.e. in boolean logic
IF (a1 AND a2 AND …an) THEN X
may be taken as s statement of causality, but really… sometimes its just easier to say ‘unpredictable stuff happens whose ’causes’ are so complex you might just as well call it an ‘act of God’
So the original statement is demonstrably shown to be possibly true for certain values of ’cause’ but there is argument as to how valid a concept causality is in complex chaotic situations.

September 19, 2017 1:16 pm

The flapping entity causing more hurricanes is NOT wings of a butterfly, but lips of a climate alarmist.
Then again, I best go check now on the trend in butterfly population growth over the years.
Nah, it’s the population growth of maggots, like people who write books entitled An Inconvenient Truth.
That is to say, maggots feeding off people’s ignorance.

September 19, 2017 1:25 pm

I blame Russian hackers

Pop Piasa
September 19, 2017 1:33 pm

Crap! the PDF is paywalled.
At the risk of (again) revealing myself as a hillbilly, why is some information more valuable than the other? Do you have to purchase this data from NASA? Is there a lack of sufficient sponsor funding? Wouldn’t an author be more likely to have his educated opinion and analysis circulated if he didn’t expect payment from each reader?

Reply to  Pop Piasa
September 19, 2017 8:27 pm

It is the journal which is billing people to read the paper, the scientist does not get a red cent. Not royalties at all, in fact he has legally signed over ownership of his own work to the publisher, despite having probably been paid by public money to do the research and write the paper.

Wayne Townsend
Reply to  Pop Piasa
September 20, 2017 6:39 am

As a son of a fellow hillbilly, I understand that journals need to make money to stay afloat. Still, perhaps the institutions sponsoring the research could specify that a portion of the grant money should go to publishing the results, data and any code.

September 19, 2017 1:43 pm

It will be interesting to see how modern electrical infrastructure stands up to a CME such as the Carrington Event of 1859. Some experts say it will cause mayhem, and others say it will just be a another bad day for some stuff, but will recover quickly. I hope it is the latter, and not the former, since a lot of us now rely on modern civilization to live day to day. Things like hunting and gathering at Safeway may be difficult if the checkout doesn’t accept my credit card since the power is off, or the internet is down. At what point does an inconvenience turn into a crisis?
And a Carrington Event is thought to be a 1-100 chance any given year, and theoretically over due for another similar event. What about a 1-1000 CME storm that does real damage, and we have no way to calculate this damage, since we never had the electrical infrastructure in use to test until it actually happens? What about a super nova going off in our celestial back yard, like Betelgeuse, which is only 642 light years from earth and in the process of going super nova at some point in the next million years. If that shock wave is aimed at Earth, then it may be a very interesting day for us here.
We live in in a cosmic shooting gallery of many types, so the lesson should be to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The same should apply to climate change, since we will most definitely not be changing the climate any time soon, although it would be wise to harden our defences to all crisis of every kind. There are undoubtably many things that happen that are completely out of control by humankind, so this OCD with global warming and climate change being all our own fault is just nuts.

Gary Pearse
September 19, 2017 2:05 pm

Y’all know that the flit of a butterfly wing as a precursor for massive atmospheric events is a poetic excess to give a sense of mystery to causes. Millions of wings are flitting every moment, quintillions of leaves feathering the air, blades of grass, inspirations, expirations, foot falls….. I must say this overworked butterfly wing cliche is getting tiresome. I suppose it was spawned from “the straw that broke the camels back” of an earlier time.
Anyway, it is at least refreshing that one cause in this world isn’t man’s evil activity.

Steve Fraser
Reply to  Gary Pearse
September 19, 2017 2:51 pm

Gary: You almost got poetic, there!

Reply to  Steve Fraser
September 20, 2017 12:44 am
Gunga Din
September 19, 2017 3:20 pm

So….all Man’s CO2 that Al Gore said caused Katrina and would continue to cause even worse has been escaping into space through his ozone hole?
And butterflies are the reason?
Let’s bring back DDT and wipe out the butterflies!
(Sad thing is, that might make sense to those sighed the petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide.)

September 19, 2017 4:26 pm

The lady chaos in the picture gave an idea: once I’ve treated integrity and moral out of the way, my garage enterprise will start supplying corresponding remedies for climate disruption caused by different carbon-based life-forms. Limited edition to counteract butterflies. Offer for Tesla owners only with 97% discount: $9,999.00 per bottle.comment image

September 19, 2017 6:07 pm

Why does the “butterfly wings” idea keep cropping up? We know full well that any disturbance caused by the flapping is immediately (well almost) dampened by the resistance of the air around it. There are many far greater disturbances that could cause distant activity but don’t. Isn’t it time to put this rather wet idea to bed? Chaos theory says nothing much about the real world if only because there are too many variables to interfere.

Reply to  Macspee
September 20, 2017 3:02 am

Why does the “butterfly wings” idea keep cropping up? We know full well that any disturbance caused by the flapping is immediately (well almost) dampened by the resistance of the air around it

Its the ‘almost’ that is in play here.
Suppose I have a lump of lead on a pencil and the pencil is balanced on its tip, and the lead will fall in an annulus shaped area, in one part of which is a button which, if pressed, will detonate a 50Mt warhead in Cincinnati…
…And a butterfly lands on the pencil…
Or let’s assume you are of an age to have played a mechanical pinball machine, and know why the ’tilt’ sensors were incorporated.
Divergent equations are sensitive to very small inputs.
And equations that are functions of many variables combined to produce a given output, cannot be said to have just one ’cause’.

September 19, 2017 8:02 pm

“Those “hurricanes” are formed by a phenomenon known as Kelvin-Helmholtz (KH) instability. As plasma from the Sun (solar wind) sweeps across the Earth’s magnetic boundary, it can produce large vortices (about 10,000-40,000 kilometers in size) along the boundary layer …”
Aren’t those vortices called Birkeland currents?

Reply to  Max Photon
September 19, 2017 9:03 pm

Perhaps this is a diocotron instability which is a plasma instability created by two sheets of charge slipping past each other. Energy is dissipated in the form of two surface waves propagating in opposite directions, with one flowing over the other. This instability is the plasma analog of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability in fluid mechanics. The problem here is that magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) is being used when it should not. Hannes Alfvén, who won the the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970 for the subject warned against the improper use of MHD.

Reply to  Richmond
September 19, 2017 10:01 pm

Well said Richmond.

Mark - Helsinki
Reply to  Richmond
September 20, 2017 5:34 am

Great post and this also “plasma instability created by two sheets of charge slipping past each other” there is where you dont need immense energy for charge separation in space.
mainstream astronomy is still in denial on this.

September 20, 2017 3:16 am

With apologies to all who enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams for my obviously poor pastiche.
The Ultimate Catastrophic Climate Hypothetical Paradigm Program© . and the killing of a Planet…
The Total Hypothetical Vortex Hub™ (henceforth the ‘THVH©’) is a device built for the UN-IPCC as the ultimate climate modeling system. It was made by linking all super-computers worldwide to a special super-hub that runs the Climate Hypothetical Paradigm Program©. The original Hypothetical Paradigm Program© was written in Hansen Expandable Lapse Language (HELL)™©, but has recently been upgraded with ‘Green Maggot®’ modules written in Inflatable AR5E™© and supplied by Mann-soft© Litigation of America®©™ to become The Ultimate Catastrophic Climate Hypothetical Paradigm Program© .
This fantastically powerful system can model all dynamic climate scenarios as mere sequences of static weather pattern assemblages with a total 100% confidence (±3% max. stnd. error) in predictability.
The operational basis is built on the simple idea that every little breeze on the planet is affected by every other breeze. These breezes make winds, gales and storms that we experience but more importantly this controls all precipitation, and so temperature of the planet. And this is well understood by climatologists. Also well understood is that a butterfly’s wing movement in Brazil could theoretically cause the breeze that starts a storm off the African coast that brings a hurricane to the Caribbean and the Americas.
To stop this unwanted chaotically random element, the UN initiated a massive butterfly cull, except one. This single butterfly powered (the original) ‘THVH©’, and by careful analysis of it’s wing movements, all model climatic eventualities and scenarios can be reconstructed. These reconstructed outcomes are maintained on the ground, by the use of the UN mandated massive global wind-farms arrays. Thus all weather and climate is reduced to easy predictability. The ‘Green Maggot®’ upgrades dispense with this last butterfly by modeling its movements using ‘indiscreet structured elements’ from the original Hansen Expandable Lapse Language (HELL)™© library functions.
Some have remarked that the basic idea of the ‘THVH©’ is what gave the inventor Trin Tragula his starting methodologies for The Total Perspective Vortex. (See Encyclopedia Galactica reference ‘Death and madness, THVH to TPV’, or
The Total Perspective Vortex (aka ‘the TPV’) is a device built to display a practical application of the theory of holistic atomic interactivity. An idea that if every atom of the universe is affected by every other atom of the universe, then it is theoretically possible to extrapolate a model of the entire universe using a single piece of matter as a starting point. The TPV does this using a very appetizing piece of fairy cake as its extrapolation base.
Trin Tragula originally created the TPV as a way to get back at his wife (who kept telling him to get a “sense of proportion”). The TPV is now used by the UN as a torture re-education method for ‘AGW climate deniers'(see Encyclopedia Galactica reference Lennart Bengtsson).
The prospective victim ‘special student’ of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein displayed is a four-dimensional model of the entire universe — together with a microscopic two-dimensional dot bearing the legend “you are here”. The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim’s mind.
One near catastrophic event occurred when a trial run with a volunteer named Al Gore nearly overwhelmed the device when this volunteer’s ego nearly infected all known space, warping the universe to a new dream-time. Thankfully a ‘true science’ researcher’s pin prevented too much damage.
In contrast to the TPV, the Total Hypothetical Vortex Hub™ in running the The Ultimate Catastrophic Climate Hypothetical Paradigm Program©, and with the additional UN mandated add-on modules, has ensured a permanent and rapid decline of human civilizations. The UN’s first successful deployment was on the planet Earth where about 6 billion humans perished as direct and indirect results of enabling the THVH©’s Ultimate Catastrophic Climate Hypothetical Paradigm Program© ..
“I have a pain in all the diodes down my left side…”

Mark - Helsinki
September 20, 2017 5:35 am

There is no such thing as a space hurricane, ffs

September 20, 2017 10:41 pm

The area of active sun spots are coming round again —

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