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Plasma from solar tornadoes could down power grids on Earth

Imagine a giant tornado-like plasma formation wider than the Earth that looks like a tornado but doesn’t actually spin in the same way twisters on Earth do.

This is called a solar tornado and new research has found that these massive plasma cyclones could create coronal mass ejections (CME), plumes of electrically charged plasma ejected into the universe with potentially devastating consequences on Earth.

Solar tornadoes, or tornado prominences, can span tens of thousands of miles wide and due to their volatile instability upon collapsing could knock out satellites, down communication across the globe, and shut down power grids.

Now, thanks to a new study conducted by the Space Research Insitute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, researchers may be able to predict how long before a coronal mass ejection occurs.

The results show that a CME is most likely to occur within the first few days after a solar tornado forms.  Solar tornadoes can last a few hours to months.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Solar Dynamics Observatory from 2011 and were able to pinpoint 361 tornadoes out of the data.

The researchers were also able to determine when 166 of the tornadoes dissipated which is when the risk of CME is highest.  

If a CME with enough force were to make its way towards Earth, it could wreak havoc and even disrupt aircraft navigation and the Earth’s magnetic field, according to the Daily Mail.

Predicting CMEs and better understanding solar tornados is crucial and now with this latest study which is awaiting peer review, science may be closer to estimating CME events.

“The instability in the tornadoes really destabilizes the entire prominence,” Teimuraz Zaqarashvili, the study’s lead researcher, told Live Science. “When a CME hits the Earth’s magnetosphere, it generates magnetic storms, and this may affect satellites, telecommunication systems, and even human health. So it is very important to predict CMEs, and that can be done by looking to the tornadoes.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: NASA, SDO, GSFC

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