A recent powerful geomagnetic storm cracked and shrunk the Earth’s magnetic field, leaving human populations vulnerable and exposed to deadly cosmic radiations, scientists have revealed in a new study.
The recent transient cracking and weakening of the Earth’s magnetosphere were discovered in a new analysis of data from the GRAPES-3 muon telescope in Ooty, India.
According to research scientists, the weakening and cracking of the magnetosphere were caused by heavy bombardment of the Earth’s magnetic field by high-energy cosmic rays following a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun.
The Sun released a massive cloud of plasma associated with a surge of high-energy radiation that hit the magnetosphere at 2.5 million kilometers per hour, causing a dramatic compression of the Earth’s magnetic shield from about 11 to four times the radius of Earth.
The impact triggered a violent geomagnetic storm that generated a supercharged aurora borealis and widespread radio signal blackouts in North and South America.
The Earth’s magnetic shield cracked temporarily, exposing the Earth’s atmosphere to deadly cosmic radiation.
The GRAPE-3 muon telescope at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Ooty, India, recorded the burst of galactic cosmic rays of about 20 GeV associated with the coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun on June 22, 2015, according to Phys.org.
The storm was so powerful that it caused widespread radio signal blackouts in high latitude countries and North and South America. The Earth’s magnetosphere reeled under the force of the assault and multiple cracks appeared in the magnetic shield.
Scientists were able to obtain a precise estimation of the full extent of the weakening and damage to the magnetosphere caused by the heavy cosmic ray bombardment after a recent analysis of data collected using the GRAPE-3 muon telescope in Ooty, India.
The GRAPE-3 muon telescope is the largest and most sensitive cosmic ray monitor, according to Phys.org. Analysis of data obtained from the telescope showed that the burst of cosmic rays disrupted the Earth’s magnetic shield.
The analysis, conducted by experts at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), involved using data collected from the telescope to run multiple simulations of the impact of the cosmic ray bombardments on the magnetosphere.
The simulations revealed that the radiation caused multiple small cracks in the magnetosphere that exposed the Earth to potentially harmful radiation. Scientists were also worried to discover that the intense bombardment caused the magnetosphere to shrink from 11 times to four times the Earth’s radius.
But the magnetosphere recovered from the damage and weakening after the bombardment subsided, the scientists said.
According to the researchers in a paper published in the Physical Review Letters, data analysis and simulations showed that sufficiently intense cosmic ray bombardment of the magnetosphere could “reconfigure” and disrupt the Earth’s magnetic shield.
The scientists noted that the results of their study have far-reaching implications because the Earth’s magnetosphere is very vital to life on Earth as it shields the atmosphere from deadly cosmic rays.
The study reveals that the Earth’s magnetosphere is more vulnerable than previously thought, the researchers said.
“The occurrence of this burst also implies a two-hour weakening of Earth’s protective magnetic shield during this event,” the study said. “It indicates a transient weakening of Earth’s magnetic shield.”
Powerful solar storms can cause widespread disruption of modern civilization by tripping electrical power grids, global positioning systems, and satellite communications.
Scientists fear that sustained intense bombardment of the magnetosphere could damage it permanently and expose Earth to powerful high-energy radiation that could strip Earth of its protective atmosphere and end life on Earth.
Although there is nothing that modern science and technology can do to help in the event of such catastrophe, scientists said the results of the new study and the knowledge obtained could “hold clues for a better understanding of future superstorms that could cripple modern technological infrastructure on Earth, and endanger the lives of the astronauts in space.”
Astronauts on deep space missions outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere — such as during a trip to Mars — are particularly vulnerable to the effect of high-energy cosmic radiation.
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