Earth's electric blanket charged with many secrets

Innovative new research into the Earth’s “electric blanket” reveals its implication in our dramatic weather and climate change and underlines its importance on our communication systems.

Way up in the sky, sitting at the uppermost part of the Earth’s atmosphere is the Ionosphere – a 1000-kilometer-thick shell of electrically charged atoms and molecules that could hold the key to untold forces of nature, including the mysteries of climate change.

Discovered by 20th-century radio pioneers who bounced long-wave radio signals off it, the Ionosphere is the result of sunlight’s interaction with the atmosphere; the sun’s energy ionizes the atmospheric molecules, creating a sea of swirling electrical current. It is responsible for atmospheric electrical phenomena like lightning; it deflects solar wind; and creates a magnetic field that turns the Earth into a giant magnet. It interferes with radio transmission and is responsible for much of the climatic variation at the Earth’s surface.

Way over Our Heads

Scientists claim that understanding the Ionosphere can help pinpoint the source of dramatic weather and climate change. By understanding how solar activity causes the Earth’s magnetic field to vary within a daily, as well as a long-term cycle, researchers can begin to determine sources of dramatic geophysical phenomena like tsunamis and earthquakes.

Francisca N. Okeke, Professor of Physics at the University of Nigeria, has dedicated her professional life to understanding the Ionosphere and what she refers to as the “equatorial electrojet phenomenon” on the earth. Energized by the sun, the electrojet is a river of electrical current that traverses the globe eastward around the dip equator and causes the magnetic field at the dip equator to vary almost five times more than anywhere else on the planet.

Her groundbreaking studies investigate how the Ionosphere and its currents, like the electrojet stream, impact the electrical conductivity of Earth’s mantle, the rocky crust that contains over 80% of Earth’s volume. Notably, she has analyzed how variations in solar quiet day currents were employed in mapping the conductivity of the upper mantle throughout Africa.

“We face so many challenges on earth today with erratic climate change, pollution, flooding, habitat destruction, earth quakes,” confirms Professor Okeke. “My work contributes to heightening awareness of the role of geomagnetic research in solid earth studies; such as oil and mineral prospecting. This is a crucial pointer to understanding solar activities that affect geomagnetic fields, which invariably affect human lives on earth,” she says.

Waves of Change

The Ionosphere is also essential to earth’s global communications systems as solar radiations ionize this electricity-rich region making it capable of sending communicational waves like radio waves. It is by investigating these radio waves that Professor Colin Price of the Israel based Tel Aviv University's Department of Geophysical, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Israel Silber, a PhD candidate, developed a unique new measuring tool of Ionosphere activity and climate change.

In a paper, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in the summer of 2013, Professor Price explains that, “The strength of radio signals on the ground is a dependable indicator of the alterations in the temperature in the Ionosphere.”

“A simple radio antennae on the ground can be used to measure the radio wave broadcast using navigational transmitters present around the globe. The accumulated data is then compared on the strength of the radio signals with the data regarding temperature alterations in the upper atmosphere,” he tells the journal.

“What we found by doing this is that the presence of greenhouse gases in huge quantities led to the changes in the above atmospheric temperatures and these gases may lead to higher radio wave absorption. Frail signals can therefore point towards greater climatic change,” he reveals.

"While the sun is certainly the driving force behind changes in temperature in this region, it accounts for only 60 to 70 percent of temperature variations," comments Price. "The remaining variability could not be systematically measured until now. By adding measurements of radio waves taken on the ground to solar radiation estimates, researchers can now explain approximately 95 percent of temperature changes in the upper atmosphere." A major scientific breakthrough.

Out of the Comfort Zone

This electrically charged zone way up in the atmosphere out of everyday sight has immense impact on our daily lives. The slightest interference with this plasma shield could have massive repercussions, from hindering the efficiency of Satellite Navigation Systems and other key communication devices, such as mobile telephones, to generating earthquakes, tsunamis and all sorts of other natural disasters. Who knows what else scientists will uncover as studies into the Ionosphere continue at pace.

For Women in Science

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