Earth's Atmosphere Collapses to Surprising Degree, Baffles Scientists

The Earth’s upper atmosphere expands and contracts a bit naturally. But a recent record-breaking collapse has scientists confused.

The thermosphere that surrounds the Earth can be anywhere from 55 miles high to 370 miles high, depending largely on solar activity. It is what intercepts extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) headed towards the Earth’s surface.

When sunspots and sunflare activity decline a lot, we are in what scientists call a “solar minimum.” In a solar minimum, the thermosphere cools and contracts a bit. But during a 2008-2009 solar minimum, the thermosphere contracted more than could be explained by the solar minimum, 2-3 times more.

A new research paper, released on June 19 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, discusses this baffling collapse.

“This is the biggest contraction of the thermosphere in at least 43 years,” said John Emmert of the Naval Research Lab and lead author of the research paper. “It’s a Space Age record. Something is going on that we do not understand.”

Emmert hypothesized that high levels of CO2, which acts as a coolant in the thermosphere (video on how CO2 cools the upper atmosphere but warms the lower atmosphere here), could have been responsible for the collapse. However, incorporating that into the equation still didn’t solve the problem.

“[T]he numbers don’t quite add up,” Emmert says. “Even when we take CO2 into account using our best understanding of how it operates as a coolant, we cannot fully explain the thermosphere’s collapse.”

Low solar EUV could be responsible for about 30% of the collapse and high CO2 for another 10% or so, Emmert and his colleagues say. So, that leaves another 60% that is completely unaccounted for.

With the solar minimum now coming to an end, EUV increasing, and the thermosphere expanding, the researchers are looking for more clues to help them solve this puzzle.

via TreeHugger & NASA

Image Credit: NASA

4 thoughts on “Earth's Atmosphere Collapses to Surprising Degree, Baffles Scientists”

  1. You should be 100% confident the solar minimum has ended. Lots of solar activity in the past few days. A huge solar flare erupted today

  2. Ah, another mysterious geo-solar aberration from the norm…interesting read. I'm not 100% confident the "solar minimum coming to an end" pat, though…like the old quote: "the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated"…predictions for an end to a very protracted solar minimum have been going on for the past 2+ years, and there is still debate about sunspot activity returning "in force" versus "less than normal"..there have been a few false 'start ups' already….but, assuming that things are picking up slowly, sunspot wise, we are then faced with this aberration in thermospheric thickness….this may indicate that we are experiencing part of a much longer geo-solar state cycle–one perhaps much longer than 40+ years–and that once again, geo-solar-physics and climate science (and their inter-relationship) prove themselves to be highly complex fields of study, with as many 'unknown' variables as 'known' ones….

    'may you live in interesting times'

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