Solar Tsunamis

STEREO image of a solar tsunami that happened on December 7, 2007

STEREO image of a solar tsunami that happened on December 7, 2007

On Earth we understand tsunamis to be powerful and immense waves that are capable of incalculable devastation. However not even the biggest tsunami in Earth’s produced by seismic activity can even compare to solar tsunamis.

These are massive waves of solar substance that dwarf just about anything in the solar system in scale and size. More importantly their effects are not just limited to the Sun: they can also affect the Earth as well.

Solar Tsunamis are officially known as fast-mode magnetohydrodynamical waves. These waves are massive. Most are taller than the circumference of Earth. Essentially if you were to place the Earth in a hypothetical Solar sized ocean, it would be completely swamped. Another interesting thing is that these waves have been observed by different solar observatories such as the SOHO telescope. The images show it looking like tsunamis ripple patterns after an earthquake. The images were so startling that many astronomers worldwide at first did not believe what they were seeing.

STEREO Ahead (“STA”) (top) and Behind (“STB”) (bottom) views of the coronal wave event. Credit: S. Patsourakis, George Mason University

So what causes solar tsunamis? It is believed that solar tsunamis are caused by Coronal Mass Ejections. These are periodic ejections of the Sun’s material that cause solar flares and power the solar wind. Coronal Mass ejections are basically immensely powerful explosions and just like powerful earthquakes on Earth cause tidal waves they can cause solar tsunamis. And the actual numbers are astounding. Another NASA solar observatory, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) observed a solar tsunami that traveled at a blistering 250 km/s (560,000 miles per hour). It also towered at a staggering 100,000 km high.

The unique orbit of STEREO’s twin spacecraft allowed scientists to confirm the existence of solar tsunamis. Credit: NASA

One thing is certain, is that while they happen on the Sun, solar tsunamis affect us on Earth as well. When ever a Coronal Mass Ejection happens, powerful ions are streamed into space. If the tsunamis and CME happen to be pointed at Earth it can potentially affect telecommunication and electronics. Solar tsunamis also show us how little we actually know about our own Sun and how it works. Before their discovery no one would have known that the Sun’s surface acted under the same kind of fluid dynamics that our oceans do. This is why solar observatories like SOHO and STEREO are vital in studying the sun.

A “mug shot” of a solar coronal wave: The twin STEREO spacecraft capture an expanding wave from head-on (left) and in profile (right). Credit: S. Patsourakis, George Mason University



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