Solar System Chatter

Earth’s Auto Temp Control

Part of the atmosphere behaves like a natural thermostat, say scientists studying the aftermath of solar outbursts that hit the Earth. When a coronal mass ejection sends electrically charged plasma into our atmosphere, it heats up and expands. Scientists at Colorado University at Boulder now believe they know how the planet’s atmosphere compensates for the onslaught. Boulder professor Delores Knipp realized what might be happening when looking at data from a major solar storm in 1967: When the CMEs hit the air they create shock waves, which create trace amounts of nitric oxide. Then the team studied 15 years of data from an instrument that undergraduate students at the university built and operated on NASA’s TIMED satellite. They found that the upper layers of air can suddenly heat up by as much as 750 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sudden presence of the nitric oxide has a supercooling effect—lowering the air temperature by as much as 930 degrees. Now we know one more way the Earth keeps our home habitable.

Heather Goss is the Departments Editor at Air & Space.

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atmosphere, CME, sun