Earlier this year, on August 21 people in the USA were able to experience the Great American Eclipse, a beautiful, unforgettable and full of magic moment when the Moon’s disk completely covers the Sun.
Now, scientists report they have discovered the event created a bow in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a phenomenon that has been theorized about, but has never been detected until now.
A composite image of 21 separate photographs shows the solar eclipse as it creates the effect of a diamond ring at totality. The Great American Eclipse of August 2017 left a ‘wake’ in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the way a ship does when it moves through water. The phenomenon has been theorized about, but never before detected.REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST
The observations were made by researchers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and the University of Tromsø in Norway who used 2,000 sensors receiving positioning satellite data to observe the eclipse’s strange effects on atmosphere.
During the study, scientists observed atmospheric “bow waves,” like the outermost waves of a ship’s wake. These waves tell an important story about the complexity of Earth’s atmosphere.
“We were looking at some phenomena that were expected but never had the chance to be observed,” study author Shun-Rong Zhang from the MIT Haystack Observatory told Gizmodo. “That was the surprise we found… we had a large coverage and our system is sensitive enough to be able to see these smaller variations. That was really very interesting to us.”
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They detected changes in electron content in the ionosphere — bow waves— that lasted for about an hour and traveled at the same speed as the moon’s shadow over the Earth, they write in research published this month in Geophysical Research Letters.
“This study reveals complex interconnections between the Sun, Moon, and Earth’s neutral atmosphere and ionosphere,” wrote the authors in their paper.
As Gizmodo reports, “the Sun’s heat provides energy to Earth’s atmosphere. The Moon passing in front of it causes a noticeable decrease in the energy in the shadowed zone. The shadow travels fast enough that it should create a bow wave in the atmosphere—the same idea as the trailing v-shaped waves left behind by boats traveling in water. The eclipse’s bow wave was too slight to detect—until now.”
The bow waves are not very energetic though, and there is no need to worry they will pose any danger to us here the ground. They are not as intense as solar weather, which could damage our electrical grid and communications systems, explained Zhang. It is also unlikely they can have much of an effect on the broader atmosphere.
But it is an interesting study, since it’s the first time scientists have been able to actually see a phenomenon they only speculated about. Finally observing the bow wave should give researchers a better idea of how the ionosphere behaves, as well as how it interacts with the rest of the atmosphere.