A solar tornado that was taller than 14 Earths was captured by astrophotographers Andrew McCarthy and Jason Guenzel last week. The phenomenon, which lasted for three days, was one of the most spectacular examples of solar activity ever observed.
McCarthy captured over 200,000 images and worked with Guenzel over five days on the data to create the 140-megapixel picture.
Solar tornadoes are not like the ones we see on Earth. They are made of plasma, a hot gas of electrically charged particles, and are shaped by the sun’s magnetic field. They can reach temperatures of millions of degrees Celsius and rotate at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second.
The solar tornado that emerged above the sun’s north pole on March 15 grew to a height of about 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) by March 18, before collapsing into a cloud of magnetized gas that was ejected into space. The event did not pose any threat to Earth, as the plasma cloud was not directed towards our planet.
However, the sun has been very active lately, with several sunspots and coronal holes visible on its surface. Sunspots are darker areas where the magnetic field is stronger and can produce solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are powerful bursts of plasma and radiation. Coronal holes are openings in the magnetic field that allow solar wind, a stream of charged particles, to escape into space.
These phenomena can affect space weather around Earth, especially when they interact with our planet’s magnetic field. They can cause geomagnetic storms, which can disrupt satellite communications, navigation systems and power grids. They can also enhance auroras, the colorful lights that appear in the sky near the poles.
The U.K. Met Office, which monitors space weather, has predicted a minor geomagnetic storm for March 27, due to a coronal hole that is facing Earth. This could result in some auroral activity at higher latitudes, but nothing too severe.
Solar activity follows an 11-year cycle, with periods of high and low activity. The current cycle, known as Solar Cycle 25, began in December 2019 and is expected to peak around 2025. Scientists are studying the sun’s behavior to better understand and forecast its impact on Earth and space.