Magnetic storms have the potential to wreak havoc on power grids and communications satellites alike, posing a real danger to civilization. Because of the potential severity of this problem, the Department of Energy (DOE) is rapidly working toward a fix via a new algorithm.

A magnetic storm is a period of rapid magnetic field variation generally caused by our sun emitting a strong solar wind called a coronal mass ejection. This solar wind disrupts the magnetic fields that surround the Earth, called the magnetosphere. More specifically, the magnetic field lines are broken and reattached, a process that releases energy into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

To combat this problem, DOE has developed an algorithm that can detect plasmoids in Earth’s magnetosphere, which are essentially magnetic bubbles. The algorithm also analyzed a large trove of information collected by NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission to study reconnection in the magnetosphere.

A diagram displaying how a solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Via JAXA

The goal of the algorithm is to better understand how reconnection takes place and how it releases energy. “Getting a better understanding of this process could help us forecast how solar storms affect us here on Earth. We could also get better insight into how reconnection impacts fusion reactions,” said Kendra Bergstedt, a graduate student in the Princeton Program working on the project.

So far, the algorithm has made some discoveries surrounding the emergence of particle energy. It was found that the smaller plasmoids in a reconnection area hardly contributed to the energy passed from the magnetic fields to the particles. “We all expected that most of the energization would happen in these plasmoids,” said Hantao Ji, a physicist at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

While the new algorithm has shed some light on the magnetosphere’s reconnection process, much work still needs to be done before we fully understand the process. However, this is an important step forward in predicting and avoiding the potential damage of magnetic storms.


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