How It Works

Solar Tornadoes


We chat to professor Robertus von Fay Siebenburgen from the University of Sheffield about the solar phenomenon.

What are solar tornadoes?
Solar tornadoes are a phenomena observed in the solar atmosphere where magnetised plasma is swirling with massive speeds. The atmosphere of the Sun is made of plasma. Plasma is the 4th state of matter and over 99% of matter in our Universe is in plasma state.

How similar are they to ones on Earth?
The only similarity is the rotational feature, however, even that is different as the speeds involved are thousands of times greater. Very hot magnetised plasma is swirling, often even erupting causing disruptions is space weather.

What is the difference between giant tornadoes and small-scale magnetic tornadoes?
This is not yet fully understood. What is clear now that small-scale magnetic tornadoes are rooted deep under the surface of the Sun, in aan area called the photosphere. This is where the magnetic field is generated and continuously buffeted by random motions, called granular motion. This motion is somewhat similar to what one may see when boiling water.

What is the corona heating problem?
This is one of astrophysics’s most outstanding problems. The surface of the Sun is about 5-6000 K hot. Heat is produced well below the surface. So, naturally, one would expect the temperature going AWAY from the surface should drop. We observe, however, the opposite. The phenomenon was discovered around a century ago and is not yet solved.

Solar tornadoes, space weather
Image credited to Wedemeyer-Böhm et al. Image produced with VAPOR

How do solar tornadoes contribute to Earth auroras?
The direct link is not yet fully established. Most likely, some tornadoes may erupt, throw hot plasma in the inter-planetary space and that may reach the Earth’s aurora. But, this is not yet proven.

How are solar tornadoes linked to solar winds?
Same as above: the hot material may travel as part of the solar wind, with VERY high speeds of 1000 km/s (621 m/s).

How much do we understand them and are they important to conditions on Earth?
Space weather is fundamentally important for humanity. Disruptions in space weather can cause power failure, loss of of telecommunication, etc. We are just at the beginning to understand how space weather is actually influenced and governed by the processes of the Sun.

What is Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)?

CMEs are hot material, originating from the lower part of the solar atmosphere, thrown into space and travelling with huge speeds. They form space weather.

What is the fastest/largest solar tornado ever recorded?
Hard to say, but typical speeds are few 100 km/s, however, they could be a few times higher.

Do you know about the future planned missions to investigate such as the NASA solar probe plus?
Yes, there are various missions (e.g. Solar C, HiRISE) and planned space balloon flights (HRISBE). Solar physicists are never shortage of idea, only financial resources.

Featured image credited to Wedemeyer-Böhm et al. Image produced with VAPOR/SDO