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Did a solar storm damage Earth’s magnetic field?

The collected data, reported this month by astrophysicists and highlighted by Wired, indicated that a giant cloud of fast-moving plasma from the Sun struck the Earth’s magnetic field (or ‘magnetosphere’) shrunk from 11 times the Earth’s radius to just four for the two hour period.

The magnetosphere is the region of space surrounding an astronomical object (in this case, our planet) where charged particles are controlled by that object’s magnetic field. To give an idea of the strength of the field, NASA scientists have suggested the Earth’s magnetotail may cause “dust storms” on the Moon. The storms are created through the potential magnetic difference between the day side and the night side of the moon.

The review of the 2015 event suggests a solar storm of such intensity passed Earth’s magnetosphere (which provides a natural defense against cosmic radiation). The impact of this storm was to hit technology in several regions of the Northern hemisphere through electromagnetic pulses. A solar storm (or solar flare) is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun’s surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of energy emissions.

Scientists, Laboratory Roots reports, are concerned the event has put a permanent dent in the Earth’s magnetic field. This is concerning should further events of this magnitude occur in the future, since the magnetic field is our main protection against solar radiation. This doesn’t mean immediate harm to life but such events could further damage electrical equipment and there is a risk, in some areas, of increased skin cancer. And this is all dependent upon future solar storms of a similar magnitude.

The research indicates humanity must be mindful of our magnetic field and the role it plays. However, there isn’t much we can do to protect the planet other than continue to monitor.

The event has been described in the journal Physical Review Letters. The paper is titled “Transient Weakening of Earth’s Magnetic Shield Probed by a Cosmic Ray Burst.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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