Science

Can solar storms cause tsunamis?

The sun is irascible and often unleashes it in the form of solar storms that erupt into blobs of plasma teeming with charged particles that can seriously disrupt satellites, the internet, and GPS on Earth.

With all the destruction these fiery tantrums are potentially capable of, can they actually cause a tsunami on Earth?

The short answer is not directly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in order for a tsunami to hit Earth, an earthquake must occur under the ocean floor, which will displace water and create a colossal ultra-fast wave passing through the entire water column. (will open in a new tab) (NOAA). Such earthquakes are caused by the same type of tectonic plate movement as volcanoes. (will open in a new tab) erupt and cities shake. But no matter how terrible it may seem for the Earth, to be bombarded by the plasma winds of a solar flare (a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation (will open in a new tab) from the Sun) or a coronal mass ejection (a giant cloud of electrically charged particles from the Sun moving at high speed), these forces cannot directly cause a real tsunami rising from the ocean floor.

Related: Can a solar storm ever destroy the Earth?

Nevertheless, some researchers argue that solar storms can indirectly lead to tsunamis on Earth.

Scientists agree that solar storms can generate tsunami-type shockwaves or “solar tsunamis” that damage the Sun, not the Earth, NASA reported when the phenomenon was recorded by its Solar-Earth Observatory (STEREO) in 2006. This shock wave, also known as the Morton wave, was powerful enough to compress and heat hydrogen and other gases in the Sun until the entire star burned brighter. It happened in just a few minutes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an X2.0 class solar flare erupting from the lower right side of the Sun on October 27, 2014. The image shows a mixture of extreme ultraviolet light with wavelengths of 131 and 171 angstroms. (Image credit: NASA/SDO)

Some solar flares are so extreme that they can leave their mark on Earth, a team of researchers found in a 2022 study published in the journal Nature. (will open in a new tab)when they discovered traces of radioactive fallout from what hit Greenland over 9,000 years ago. Particles carried by the solar wind ended up in ice cores, which were later examined in the laboratory. This particular major event did not cause a tsunami, but a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports. (will open in a new tab) described a possible connection between solar storms and strong earthquakes on Earth, and earthquakes are known to cause tsunamis.

“[We found] evidence of a high correlation between strong earthquakes around the world and proton density near the magnetosphere due to the solar wind,” the researchers, led by Vito Marchitelli, a satellite analysis expert at Basilicata University in Potenzo, Italy, wrote in the study. This result is extremely important for seismological research and possible future implications for earthquake prediction.”

Solar storms affecting Earth are the result of solar flares or coronal mass ejections, which typically occur when magnetic fields on the Sun become entangled or disrupted. Both explode with gigantic amounts of energy and send powerful solar winds into space. When charged particles of the solar wind reach the Earth and interact with the ionosphere (will open in a new tab) — the outermost part of our atmosphere at the edge of space — they can cause disruptions to satellite and GPS signals, according to NASA. (will open in a new tab). But interaction with the magnetosphere can do more. Earth’s magnetosphere (will open in a new tab) located further than the ionosphere. This is the area in space surrounding the planet where the magnetic fields are particularly strong, and it is shaped by the solar wind running into these magnetic fields.

Illustration of the earth’s magnetic field. (Image credit: alxpin via Getty Images)

Marchitelli and his colleagues suggested that solar wind particles entering the magnetosphere could influence the intensity of earthquakes. The researchers believe that these particles are potentially related to the movement of tectonic plates because their electricity could exacerbate existing disturbances, such as subduction, in which one tectonic plate is pushed under another. They concluded that the more protons there were in the solar wind shaking the magnetosphere, the more likely they were to exacerbate earthquakes, some of which could trigger tsunamis.

However, Marchitelli’s study did not study the number of tsunamis during periods of strong and weak solar wind, so this idea is still just an idea.

There is more support for this thinking. A 2011 study published in Scientific Research. (will open in a new tab) noticed that the number of earthquakes increased during the solar maximum – a period of time during the 11-year cycle of the Sun, when it is most active and most likely to emit gusts of solar wind that distort the shape of the Earth’s magnetic field. This could put additional pressure on the Earth’s crust, pushing the Earth’s magnetic field against the underlying tectonic plates, influencing earthquakes that cause tsunamis.

At the moment, these conclusions are still controversial. In a 2012 rebuttal published in Scientific Research (will open in a new tab)geophysicists argued that the connection between earthquakes and solar storms could not yet be proven.

“The impact of solar activity on earthquakes is proving to be an elusive phenomenon,” they write in the study.

So, solar storms, which are much more terrible near the Sun than on Earth, do not directly cause a tsunami on Earth. Regular tectonic activity continues regardless of solar wind activity. Can particles released by the solar wind really have any effect on plate tectonics? (will open in a new tab)however, remains a mystery.

Originally published on Live Science. (will open in a new tab)

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