University of Alberta: Energy channelled by space weather favours the north, new study shows

University of Alberta physicists have discovered a surprising imbalance in how the Earth responds to space weather driven by the sun. Energy generated as the electrically charged particles in solar wind hit the Earth result in more electromagnetic energy heading towards the magnetic north pole than to the magnetic south pole.

The sun bathes our planet in the light and heat to sustain life, but it also bombards us with dangerous charged particles in the solar wind. The resulting space weather has the potential to damage communication networks, navigation systems such as GPS, and satellites. Severe solar storms can even cause electrical power outages, such as a 12-hour blackout that Quebec suffered in 1989.

Like a magnet, Earth’s magnetic field can be defined at the surface by the north and south magnetic poles that align loosely with the axis of rotation. Until now, it was assumed the same amount of electromagnetic energy in space would reach both hemispheres of our planet.

Using information from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Swarm satellite constellation, the team of Canadian scientists led from the U of A discovered that electromagnetic energy transported by space weather clearly prefers the north. A key component of the research involved data from an electric field instrument developed in Canada by the University of Calgary. The research discovery resulted from a partnership between the two Alberta universities and ESA, and highlights international research excellence in space science in the province.

“We are fortunate that we have ESA’s three Swarm satellites in orbit, delivering key information that is not only vital for our scientific research, but can also lead to some very practical solutions for our daily lives,” said U of A co-author Ian Mann, professor in the Department of Physics.

“Because the south magnetic pole is farther away from Earth’s spin axis than the north magnetic pole, an asymmetry is imposed on how much energy makes its way down towards Earth in the north and south,” explained Ivan Pakhotin, lead author and post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Physics.