With the sun spotless – cracks are forming in Earth's magnetic field

While the sun is completely blank today, and has been for 8 days, some new things are happening in space in the electromagnetic relationship between the sun and the Earth – cracks are forming in Earth’s magnetic field that are allowing solar wind particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.

IMAGE: Solar Dynamics Observatory HMI Continuum – the sun has been spotless for 8 days straight.Date: 3/11/18

The sunspot number keeps decreasing, as would be expected at the end of solar cycle 24:

Image from NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

The vernal equinox is less than 10 days away. That means one thing: Cracks are opening in Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers have long known that during weeks around equinoxes fissures form in Earth’s magnetosphere. Solar wind can pour through the gaps to fuel bright displays of Arctic lights.

This is called the the “Russell-McPherron effect,” named after the researchers who first explained it. The cracks are opened by the solar wind itself.  South-pointing magnetic fields inside the solar wind oppose Earth’s north-pointing magnetic field. The two, N vs. S, partially cancel one another, weakening our planet’s magnetic defenses. This cancellation can happen at any time of year, but it happens with greatest effect around the equinoxes. Indeed, a 75-year study shows that March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year, followed closely by September-October–a direct result of “equinox cracks.”

NASA and European spacecraft have been detecting these cracks for years. Small ones are about the size of California, and many are wider than the entire planet. While the cracks are open, magnetic fields on Earth are connected to those on the sun. Theoretically, it would be possible to pick a magnetic field line on terra firma and follow it all the way back to the solar surface. There’s no danger to people on Earth, however, because our atmosphere protects us, intercepting the rain of particles. The afterglow of this shielding action is called the “aurora borealis.”

One such episode occurred on March 9th. “The sky exploded with auroras,” reports Kristin Berg, who sends this picture from Tromsø, Norway:

During the display, a stream of solar wind was barely grazing Earth’s magnetic field. At this time of year, that’s all it takes. Even a gentle gust of solar wind can breach our planet’s magnetic defenses.

Via NASA Spaceweather


119 thoughts on “With the sun spotless – cracks are forming in Earth's magnetic field

  1. Let’s hope that a CME doesn’t also get aimed our way during one of these ‘cracks’. Or any other day of the year. Very interesting…learn something new everyday here at WUWT.

  2. electromagnetic relationship between the sun and the Earth – cracks are forming in Earth’s magnetic field that are allowing solar wind particle’s into Earth’s upper atmosphere.
    It is a bit wrong to call the relationship ‘electromagnetic’. That word is generally reserved for the radiation [electromagnetic waves: light] we get from the sun.
    It would be better to say ‘magnetic’ as it is the magnetic field of the solar wind that makes it behave like a fluid that can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field [flow around it while also connecting with it].
    The bulk of the solar wind does not enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere via a ‘crack’ in the dayside of the magnetic field. The particles that causes the aurora and magnetic storms enter from the nightside and are for a large part derived by outflows from the Earth.
    The solar wind magnetic field is connected with the Earth magnetic field at all times, at least at some locations of the magnetosphere. I showed that way back in 1968 [that the magnetosphere was ‘open’].
    This ‘crack’ thing is crack-pottery.

      • “How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg? Four. Saying that a tail is a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Abraham Lincoln
        in their attempt to ‘dumb down’ the effect so that people can understand it, somebody [but not NASA] went a bit too far.
        What NASA [or rather somebody at NASA] meant was that the reconnection events are bursty and occurs all the place rather than in a very organized manner. This is not news.

      • The only guy I’ve seen call this a ‘crack in the magnetosphere has been Dr Phillips, and I believe it’s a simplification for the middle-school element of his audience. Probably somewhat irrelevant as a subject of argument.

      • Leif, I do think many major science organizations have large dedicated (mis-)information departments, and they write their message to asses that don’t have education (over half of the population). In doing so, they disregard the facts, if they ever understood them right themselves. The scientists don’t check what was written on behalf on them.
        The same applies to climate news. University spins, the Guardian spins more, then agencies quoting the Guardian spin, and the scientist tries to shut up in order not to make fooler of itself. And then I read how bleaching events are now more and more common. A sourced fact. Well then, time to fly to Oz to see the reef before it’s gone, right? We are being fooled again and again by news that are now facts, and 20 years later, when they are no more, we have some new but equally concerning ‘facts’. Libtards know so much that is not really so.

    • Leif, I gotta say, it is always such a pleasure to read your clear, coherent, and complete comments on all things solar. You know what you know, and you don’t claim to know more than you know.
      My thanks for your continuing contributions to the ongoing discussion, they are bright lights in an often murky picture.

      • I also think he shows an academic generosity that is laudable, considering the abuse he often takes as a result of his candor.

      • WE, seconded. Like Lief, Not a big fan of ‘Sun wot dun it’ theories. Historical data sketchy, modern observed variablility low, sensitive amplifier theories logically weak and appear mostly wiggle fitting. Me, think look to the oceans since Earth is a bluewater (pun intended) planet. And ocean related atmospheric hypotheses like your Tstorm thermoregulation, in my opinion are more than adequately supported observationally in several different ways now. Yet cannot be modeled because of the computational intractability problem.

      • Pondering a lot about “how people think and reason” in so very different ways like in politics, religion, science, philosophy, logic, common sense – all mental paradigms in their own right tuned to their specific targets, and thus always with their own dedicated and thus limited span of control you should not step outside – for science it is always Leif comes to my mind both as a scientist and a patient mentor, well aware of these boundaries.

      • Maxwell did not know about plasmas. [but there is really no violation of his laws]
        Reconnection is a fact. We can see it in the laboratory:
        “The fundamental physics of magnetic reconnection in laboratory and space plasmas is reviewed by discussing results from theory, numerical simulations, observations from space satellites, and recent results from laboratory plasma experiments. After a brief review of the well-known early work, representative recent experimental and theoretical works are discussed and the essence of significant modern findings are interpreted. In the area of local reconnection physics, many findings have been made with regard to two-fluid physics and are related to the cause of fast reconnection. Profiles of the neutral sheet, Hall currents, and the effects of guide field, collisions, and microturbulence are discussed to understand the fundamental processes in a local reconnection layer in both space and laboratory plasmas. While the understanding of the global reconnection dynamics is less developed, notable findings have been made on this issue through detailed documentation of magnetic self-organization phenomena in fusion plasmas. Application of magnetic reconnection physics to astrophysical plasmas is also discussed.”

      • Yes, I was being a bit flip over the term “crack.” It’s been 25 years but I did MS work on magnetically confined plasmas for etching semiconductor material. No dynamos or reconnection phenomenon but most of the physics remain the same regarding plasmas. The term “crack” conjured up a vision of a discontinuity that would allow the existence of a magnetic monopole which is not the case. Even the high energy, violent and random reconnections of solar flares don’t seem to have a time interval where the field lines are unconnected. I suppose the math could a bit messy between pre and post re-connection but in the end I don’t think there is ever a where a field line is unconnected (or “cracked” as my brain was putting it). I think they meant cracked in the same way the seal on a toilet is “cracked” to make it flush. There’s no “crack” in the water but it violently reconfigures itself in a dramatic “swoosh.” 🙂

    • Leif, you stated, “The particles that causes the aurora and magnetic storms enter from the nightside and are for a large part derived by outflows from the Earth.”
      Could you (or someone!) please explain the term “outflows from the Earth”? Thank you!

    • When I read this article I got out my dual-tube Geiger Mueller detector, turned it on and watched. Completely normal cosmic ray flux (0.17 msievert), so no Disturbance in The Force where I am. Those of you living under cracks might want to watch out. Or not.

    • It is a bit wrong to call the relationship ‘electromagnetic’. That word is generally reserved for the radiation [electromagnetic waves: light] we get from the sun.

      What do you suppose caused the magnetic fields in the first place? Are you trying to tell us that the Earth and Sun are permanent magnets?
      Electric motors and transformers work because of electromagnetism. The word is in no way reserved for EM radiation.

      • What do you suppose caused the magnetic fields in the first place?
        The magnetic fields are caused by a dynamo process, where a conducting [but neutral] plasma is moving [e.g. by a thermal gradient] across an already existing magnetic field. This, of course, raises the question where the very first magnetic fields came from billions of years ago. And THAT is a great puzzle. Ludvig Biermann long ago showed how it could have been produced: http://www.leif.org/research/The-Origin-of-Magnetic-Fields.pdf
        There may be other ways.
        And: there are no electric fields in the moving plasma [i.e. moving with the plasma], only magnetic fields. So ‘electromagnetism’ is at best misleading, and, in any case, not the word being used in this context.

      • In a plasma, he field lines are populated by gyrating electric charges which then make the field line visible and gives it a certain existence rather than just being abstractions.

        • In the laboratory the plasma is confined by stationary WALLS and with respect to them there is an electric field, but in space there are no walls and if you move along with the plasma there is no electric field. If there were, an electric current would flow and short the field out. Now, if the solar wind plasma meets a ‘wall’, e.g. runs into the strong magnetic field of the Earth, an elctric field, of course, appears [just like in the lab] , but even there the field is shorted out by electric currents which then affects the Earth.

    • So it is an electric connection generating magnetic fields around it. If the electric flow becomes weaker the magnetic field it creates becomes weaker.

      • How strong would be Earth’s magnetic field without a sun ?
        The sun has nothing to do with generating the Earth’s magnetic field. It is generated by motions in the fluid iron core of the Earth.

      • ” the Earth’s magnetic field. It is generated by motions in the fluid iron core of the Earth.”
        What about the objection that liquid Iron is above its Curie point?

        • What about the objection that liquid Iron is above its Curie point?
          Yeah, what about it? The Curie temparature is where a permanent magnet loses it magnetism because the magnetic domains get scrambled by thermal movements. But the core is not a permanent magnet and there are no domains to scramble, Instead the magnetic field is generated all the time by a dynamo process: convective movements and rotation serve to move the conducting metal through the existing magnetic field creating electric currents whose own magnetic field sustains the core field. The dynamo process occurs everywhere in the Universe, including the Sun and the Galaxy itself.

  3. The Carrington Event on Sept.1-2 1859 occurred during the diminishing final years of solar cycle 10. At the time, the solar cycle was at a similar point in it’s term as the current cycle and was also near the equinox. Perhaps the Carrington Event was as dramatic as it was due to similar magnetic field cracking. We certainly could be primed for another such event

  4. Indeed, a 75-year study shows that March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year, followed closely by September-October–a direct result of “equinox cracks.”
    The Russell-McPherron mechanism only explains a very small fraction of the equinoctial ‘maxima’. The main reason is that the effect cancels out when there are equal amounts of field pointing into the sun and away from the sun [which is most of the time]. The currently favored mechanism is one that depends on the tilt against the solar wind of the Earth [magnetic] axis: When tilted towards the sun [at the solstices] the Earth’s magnetic field at the sub-solar point is the strongest and thus ‘repels’ the solar wind better, leading to a minimum of activity [aurora etc] at the solstices. We showed that a long time ago: http://www.leif.org/research/suipr699.pdf. See also: http://www.leif.org/research/Semiannual-Comment.pdf

  5. Cracks are opening in Earth’s magnetic field.

    This makes as much sense as a “hole in the ozone layer”.
    Either the magnetic field has weakened or the magnetic field lines changed direction and unified the Earth and the Sun in one field. Or something else. But there cannot be “cracks” in a field.
    I don’t know which it is from this article.
    Please will someone explain what this means in a way that a (somewhat) technical layperson can understand?

  6. I remember vividly the auroras of mid march 1989. One night I was walking home from bar with my buddy (we were quite drunk) and we thought we were seeing things. An incredible lightshow! Amazing colors and speed they moved across the sky was breathtaking. We see auroras here in Finland all the time, and in my 50 years here that was the only time I was really gobsmacked.

    • Saw those while in Washington State, about 47° N.
      Years before (date unknown; early ’80s ?) saw them from southern Idaho.

      • I’ve been fortunate to see them twice, but nowhere like the photos. First was in the summer of 1976 in Alberta, I think, when i had opportunity to go out west with some friends. The second time was in around 1982 or 1983 when I was in Idaho (actually, Montana) for Geology field camp. Saw some dim, pulsating green lights in the sky, and took me a while to even realize what they were. But for me, they were spectacular. Would love to see them again.

    • At the same time (march 1989), during military service at about 80 deg. north in Norway I also remember a fantastic display of Aurora. One night I was to be guarding our tent camp during an exercise, but guess a whole company could have passed unnoticed by me….. 😉

  7. I’m still waiting to capture a photo of the aurora here in Alabama. We need a gigantic CME in March. (BTW, while reading about Carrington-type events, I read that most electronics would be OK, because they are so small…. it’s long conductors that are at risk, like transmission lines. I’m no electrical engineer, but that seems to make sense.)

    • Correct. Because the charge developed is a function of the extent of mag field intercepted by the conductor. Why generators have lots of linear feet of copper windings. In 1859, it was the long runs of telegraph wire that were problematic. Now, it is any ordinary electrical grid. Most threatened according to NOAA spaceweather are stepup/stepdown transformers between T&D, and the large D substation transformers between ~3 to 10 kv and the D end distribution <3kv. Those are often so customized it can take a year to build one. So the grid blackouts would last for a long, long time and the potential havoc devastating. Whether all the SF6 grid trips would suffice is doubtful because the problems would be so widespread. Several recent papers are available discussing potential grid consequences. None are optimistic. Only in special circumstances has newish grid been built hardened.

      • Even though I’ve read about this before, yours is a clear and short statement. Thanks.
        I think I’ll send a link to this to our local PUD.
        During the past 25 years, our electricity has been down for a maximum of 3 – 4 hours.
        Infrequent at that.

      • We should be address this potential problem. Concerns about CO2 are sucking up too much money and talent.

      • Could be done. Stocked redundant T&D transormers, maybe never needed. Extra SF6 circut breakers not otherwise needed. Grid hardened versus the next Carri ton event. Bit instead we spend billions on climate change research, and trillions on ‘mitigation’. All the while ignoring real but low probability events based on the climate ‘precautionary’ principle. NUTS!

      • These transformers are already protected against lightning strikes.
        The surges from solar storms, while they may contain more energy, they are much slower in building.
        Additionally, because these surges cover huge areas, they also impact a huge number of surge protectors.
        So while the total amount of energy is greater, the amount of energy seen at each transformer is well within the limits of what it has already been designed to handle.

      • because these surges cover huge areas,
        wouldn’t this effectively change the ground (earth) potential across the system so that there is a DC flow through the ground. something the system was never designed to handle.

    • “I’m still waiting to capture a photo of the aurora here in Alabama.”
      There was one visible in about 1956 (or maybe ’55, something like that anyway), or at least the glow from one. The actual curtains of ions were not visible to me, but the night sky lit up in Tuscaloosa and many people noticed it. It was written up in the Tuscaloosa News and I would guess also in the Huntsville Times.

  8. Actually, if you look closely, you can see that there are in fact small, dust-sized spots on the sun’s surface. Wait a minute. That’s my computer screen — never mind.

  9. Solar Cycle Points to a Coming Global Cooling
    The current solar cycle 24 is the third weakest since the systematic observation of solar cycle activity began in 1755. Only solar cycles nos. 5 and 6 (1798…1823 during the Dalton Minimum) were weaker. Editor Note: One note about the introductory graphic and historic sunspot counts. Early instrumentation may have resulted in sunspots being undercounted … Continue reading

  10. NASA and European spacecraft have been detecting these cracks for years. Small ones are about the size of California, and many are wider than the entire planet.

    …And there are people, many of them in California, who will worry about the earth falling into one of these cracks. Modern industry (aka carbon dioxide) is to blame, and higher taxation of fossil fuels is their only remedy.

  11. https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/03/11/with-the-sun-spotless-cracks-are-forming-in-earths-magnetic-field/#comment-2762840
    Leif, let me add my thanks to Willis’s for the education you provide directly and through critical comments on solar topics. You never dumb down explanations or fog them with jargonese. Describing the phenomenon as a “crack” in the earth’s magnetic field tells one nothing and only begs more questions. Would that there be more teachers in schools that had this skill.

  12. Magnetic reconnection — a phenomenon that happens throughout space — occurs when magnetic field lines come together, realign and send particles hurling outward.
    Credits: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab
    Reconnection occurs on the nightside (tail) and dayside magnetic pause of Earth’s magnetic field.
    The MMS Dayside Magnetic Reconnection Locations During Phase 1 and Their Relation to the Predictions of the Maximum Magnetic Shear Model
    Dr. Phillips was also reporting on http://www.spaceweather.com , “”Periods of spotlessness are a normal part of the 11-year solar cycle. However, the current Solar Minimum may be remarkable as the ambient solar wind and its magnetic field are weakening to low levels never before seen in the Space Age.

      • “nothing unusual”, that’s what they always say…….
        Then it becomes freak happenstance, then due to its longevity it becomes a possibly taxable entity.

      • Might not qualify as “never seen before” but from the center of the charts forward sure looks pretty darn low to me compared to previous time periods with the exception of the first chart first section. Can’t quote what is what as numericals are not legible on my screen.

      • Android tablets don’t do that. Pixilation occurs when using normal hand movement for expansion on this graph. Not really important, though I suspect that the large decreases I see are within the last solar cycle.

        • The point was to show that the claim that what we see right now [the right-most points on the graphs] has never been seem before during the space age [i.e. since 1963] is fake news.

      • With the mass of protons and electrons being different, is there a separation of electrons and protons after a CME and in the solar wind? For the same energy, electrons should travel faster than protons. In a static plasma in the lab, the difference in mass creates the boundary regions where a field is set up that drives the current flow to 0. Do they see different velocities and a field due to the mass differences in electrons and protons?

        • There is no diiference between bulk movement of electrons and protons in the solar wind. If the elctrons were to move away from the sun faster, their electric charge would pull the protons away at the same rate. Otherwise the sun would be losing negative charges and thus become more and more positive which would attract the electrons and prevent them from leaving.

  13. So … do the “cracks” have any long lasting (or short lasting) affect on the planet and it’s climate (and it’s people) ? I think scientists have an obligation to warn me if they do. :>)

  14. The North pole actually is the current South magnetic pole and vice versa. Hat is until the next magnetic reversal. Happens on the sun every 11 (or so) years. Happens on Earth about every 50 – 100 kyrs? Or so thought from paleogeologically studied frozen dipoles in magmetic rocks. The transition has never been instrumentally measured of course.
    When the magnetic pole transition to reversal does ocurr, it will be, as the the Chinese proverb suggests, “ May you live in interesting times.”

  15. Please,
    There is a southern hemisphere also. Even a little mention helps keep balance.
    Apart from remote Antarctica, there is not much SH land area with glaciers, none in Australia at all. So the conversation about Arctic ice melts and albedo has less concentration down under. Geoff.

  16. ARGH! I read the words, but I just. don’t. get it.
    What in Hades does it mean to talk about magnetic field lines touching? Magnetic field lines are not real, physical entities. They are abstractions used to describe aspects of fields.

      • Thanks. I’ve read that several times in the past.
        I’m still chewing on “magnetic field lines flow …”, but I’m having a hard time swallowing.

        • Your problem. Mother Nature does not have that problem.
          Ordinarily you cannot ‘see’ the solar radiation that shines through your window, but try to smoke a good cigar and you will be rewarded by the sight of the rays.

      • Magnetic field lines are strictly embedded only in an infinite conductivity plasma (Frozen approximation). In a real plasma the local electric field is a measure of magnetic flux changes and is often used to define the “relabeling velocity” of field lines in this reconnection construct.

        • Cosmic plasmas have for all practical purposes infinite conductivity. The fact that we at Earth can measure the Sun’s magnetic field in the solar wind is precisely that the field is frozen into the plasma and thus being dragged along.

      • n his Second Approach he rejected these approximations
        No, he did not. He rejected the idea that the field is ALWAYS frozen in. Today we realize that, e.g. reconnection of field lines requires that in the very small region of a plasma where two oppositely directed magnetic fields meet the frozen-in connection breaks down and currents can flow to change the topology of the field [‘cutting’ and ‘joining’ field lines].

      • You are preaching to the choir. Bratenahl and I did the pioneering laboratory experiments on reconnection verifying what you say.

        • Yeah, my good friend of long ago Hannes Alfven is often accused of abandoning his earlier views. In the context of his Nobel lecture he said that the frozen-in condition is “often” misleading, but that did not mean than Alfven waves, reconnection, field moving with the plasma, etc were wrong. He never said that and never meant that. His main gripe in his Nobel lecture was that his theory about the formation of the solar system and the planets and moons had fallen by the wayside.

    • Alfven’s emissary CG Falthammar regularly “nailed us to the blackboard” over reconnection. It was clear that they considered field line reconnection to be a misleading concept while we did our best to defend the reconnection process. Finally we moved to the more fundamental concept of magnetic flux transfer while they concentrated on the fundamentals of electric currents and electric fields. So a respectful truce ensued thereafter.

  17. so global warming has finally reached the point where the earth’s magnetic field is on crack. just when you think it can’t get any worse, NASA finds a way.

  18. Leif, I will definitely give you credit for getting me to see Maxwell’s equations from a TOTALLY different perspective.
    I was always clear that Gauss’s Law of Magnetism says there are no sources or sinks (i.e., monopoles) for magnetic fields, but I never ever interpreted that as saying magnetic fields are neither created or destroyed, with the bizarre implication that they always were and always will be.
    So magnetic fields are conserved.
    BUT … as Feynman pointed out, conservation of energy does not mean “energy” exists, but rather, energy is merely an abstract accounting term.
    Hmmm … might the same not be true for “magnetic fields”.

    • What makes the compass needle point north must surely exist. What keeps stuff stuck to your fridge door must surely exist. What helps homing pigeons to find their way must surely exist…
      Ask people in Hiroshima [that ere left] if the energy in E=mc^2 is merely an abstract accounting term…

    • I recall how much time (years) it took before the definition of energy I learned in Thermodynamics in Chem E school made any sense: “the capacity to do work”. Talk about abstract.

      • And even work is carefully defined. you can exhaust yourself pushing all day on a boulder that doesn’t move and end up having done no work!

    • We are all going to die.
      Eventually, of something…
      But that’s just part of the condition of being alive.

  19. ” Many people view the polar aurora (“northern lights”) as a rare phenomenon. It is indeed rare at most centers of population, but in Alaska, for instance, or in much of Canada, the aurora is quite common. Its greenish arcs, often consisting of many parallel rays (picture above), may stretch quietly across the sky, with the rays constantly fading as new ones appear. At other times the arcs may be agitated, move rapidly, expand or fade, as if manipulated by an unseen hand.
    What is the aurora? Where does its light come from, and what causes it? In the 1800s it was already evident that the Earth’s magnetic field was involved: auroral rays seemed to follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, and the frequency with which aurora was observed depended on the distance from the magnetic pole, not from the geographic one. The typical height of the aurora turned out to be about 100 km or 60 miles, placing it in the upper fringes of the atmosphere.
    In the late 1800s scientists experimented with electric phenomena in glass containers from which most of the air had been pumped out, and produced there beams of what seemed to be negatively charged particles, later named electrons. When electrons hit an obstacle, they can produce light (television screens and computer monitors operate that way), leading to the idea that perhaps the aurora was produced like that, too, when beams of electrons from outer space entered the atmosphere.
    The idea gained support when Kristian Birkeland in Norway, around 1895, aimed an electron beam at a spherical magnet and found it was guided towards the magnetic poles of the sphere. Instrumented rockets and satellites later confirmed the existence of such electron beams in the aurora, measured their energies and even photographed from above the world-wide distribution of aurora. But we are still learning about how this happens and where the aurora’s energy comes from.”

  20. We flew west across the Canadian prairies on Saturday night. I had the window seat and enjoyed a stunning display of aurora the whole way. Great article and explanation – thank you.

  21. I prefer to call the whole thing ‘electric-magnetic-electromagnetic’, ie ‘electric weather’, after the electrically charged solar and atmospheric particles, with their magnetic field, behaving electro-dynamically making their electromagnetic dance of light and fury, driving earth’s electric, magnetic, and geomagnetic fields.
    Several years ago it was getting beyond old trying to find all the latest data throughout the day, so I made an application to produce an image every 5 minutes with the latest data. 84,351 images later and counting…
    Here’s the very first public look at them:
    I’m just too busy today working on my other solar work to get involved in responding today, sorry… Save your questions for later.
    It’ll be available and we can talk about solar effects in depth after the Sun-Climate Symposium.

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