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Recent Solar Storms Pumped 26 billion Kilowatts of Energy into Earth’s Atmosphere

The recent solar activity did more than spark pretty auroras around the poles. Researchers say the solar storms of March 8th through 10th dumped enough energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every residence in New York City for two years.

“This was the biggest dose of heat we’ve received from a solar storm since 2005,” says Martin Mlynczak of NASA Langley Research Center. “It was a big event, and shows how solar activity can directly affect our planet.”

For the three day period, March 8th through 10th, the thermosphere absorbed 26 billion kWh of energy. Infrared radiation from carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere, re-radiated 95% of that total back into space.

“Unfortunately, there’s no practical way to harness this kind of energy,” said Mlynczak. “It’s so diffuse and out of reach high above Earth’s surface. Plus, the majority of it has been sent back into space by the action of CO2 and NO.”

For more info, watch the video above, or see the Science@NASA website.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • rok us March 23, 2012, 8:04 PM

    I just wanted to say that Kilowatts are NOT a unit of energy!

    • squidgeny March 23, 2012, 8:34 PM

      No but Kilowatt-hours are, which is what the article uses…

      • Aerandir90 March 23, 2012, 10:18 PM

        But not the heading, which is what everyone sees first

        • rok us March 23, 2012, 10:23 PM

          Also, why not just say 26 terawatt hours (=26TWh)?

        • squidgeny March 24, 2012, 9:50 AM

          Oh! Somehow I missed that… someone ought to get that changed stat!

  • Olaf2 March 23, 2012, 10:50 PM

    So during 2 days We received 26 billion kWh?
    That is 4.4928*10^15 Joules I calculate for 48 hours.

  • Chris Ho-Stuart March 24, 2012, 12:03 AM

    Sounds big, but I wondered how much it compares with what we normally get from the Sun in any case by radiation.

    That turns out to be 174 PetaWatts — 1.74e17 Watts.

    (I like scientific notation better than juggling metric prefixes.)

    The 26 billion kilo Watt hours is 2.6e13 * 3600 Joules (I like SI units) or 9.36e16 J

    So I calculate the Earth receives almost twice this amount of energy from the Sun every second. After accounting for atmospheric albedo and absorption, the figure quoted in the article is pretty close to what is received from the Sun at the Earth’s surface EVERY SECOND.

    So yeah…. it was a lot of energy. But still peanuts compared with the conventional radiation output we get from the Sun; and also the conventional radiation is much much easier to capture and use, being mostly shortwave radiation.

    • Aerandir90 March 24, 2012, 2:58 PM

      Good point.. that’s a nice addition to the article that gives us some perspective.

  • lcrowell March 24, 2012, 12:57 AM

    The title is wrong. The unit of watts is power or the time rate of change of energy. The video fortunately does not make this error. As Ho-Stuart points out this is a miniscule portion the Earth receives from the sun. However, the sun blows of a fair number of CMB events during solar max. The response by the exoatmosphere illustrates how this energy is largely deflected. This should cause anyone to think twice about these bogus arguments about solar forcing advanced by those who deny AGW.

    LC

    • Olaf2 March 24, 2012, 1:44 AM

      Just out of curiosity, how much energy needs to be added to Earth in order to increase 1 degree?

      • Chris Ho-Stuart March 24, 2012, 1:59 AM

        It’s not energy you must add, but power.

        At a higher temperature, Earth radiates more into space. To raise a degree, you must be supplying energy at a rate to maintain that higher temperature.

        Earth radiates about 240 W/m^2 into space. Most of this is radiated from quite high in the atmosphere; since so much of the longwave from the surface is absorbed in the atmosphere before it gets out into space. So the effective emission temperature of the Earth is actually about -18C. Raising surface temperatures also means a higher atmospheric temperature by the same amount (assuming a fixed lapse rate). With that simplification we have about 3.8 W/m^2 additional energy. (Using the Stefan-Boltzman relation)

        With a surface area of 5.1e14 m^2, this is about 1.9e15 Watts required.

        Note that this is the energy that needs to be absorbed by the Earth. It’s a lot of energy; the storm (assuming it was 48 hours) gave power at a rate of 26 trillion divided by 48; or about 5.4e11 Watts.

        There’s pretty much no way to get that kind of additional energy except by somehow absorbing more of the solar energy input.

        • Olaf2 March 24, 2012, 2:20 AM

          Trillion? or Billion?

          • Chris Ho-Stuart March 24, 2012, 6:32 AM

            Trillion. There’s the billion, and then a thousand for the “kilo” to get from kilowatt to watt.

          • Olaf2 March 24, 2012, 12:03 PM

            I didn’t notice the K in Kilowatt. LOL

          • Torbjörn Larsson March 24, 2012, 9:45 PM

            Since Chris likes SI, I dare point out that it is k and kilowatt.

            The reason for the exception (large letters for prefix above 1, small below) is the historical harmonization with the CGS system. The kg was chosen as the SI mass unit instead of the g, and to ease memorization the prefix was made an exception.

            You see a lot of SI confusion in texts from the US. Don’t get me started on MG (when both mg and Mg are valid units, and there is a perfectly valid reason for abbreviations of non-entity units to have small lettering).

  • JonHanford March 24, 2012, 2:35 AM

    Um, off topic, but………there’s a supernova in M95 as reported at many other science websites, and now a progenitor has been identified using archival Hubble imagery: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/03/23/more-m95-supernova-news-progenitor-found/

    Any chance Universe “Today” might cover this important story, oh…….. TODAY(or soon)?

    Thanks.

  • OliverManuel March 24, 2012, 11:44 AM

    Thanks for this story.

    Many NASA scientists now realize that our science was being manipulated (1971-2012) in order to Unite Nations against an imaginary common enemy, “Global Climate Change!”

    FEAR of “nuclear fires” drove the deceit in government science from the time the first man-made “nuclear fire” consumed Hiroshima on 6 Aug 1945 until the Climategate emails and documents were released in 2009.
    The rest of this sad story is in documents and references posted herehttp://www.omatumr.com/ and here http://omanuel.wordpress.com/about/
    Too late awake; NASA is now almost completely dismantled!

    With deep regrets,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

    • Torbjörn Larsson March 24, 2012, 9:56 PM

      Is that one or two conspirationist nutcases (as in self “like”)?

      Seriously, climate science deniers shouldn’t spout their anti-science on science blogs. And regardless of what you think of science, it is rare to find someone cracked enough to deny that climate change has happened anymore!

    • kate s March 31, 2012, 8:43 PM

      Thanks for the determination and fortitude. I see the strongest evidence of your Iron Sun (where is the wiki site?) theory in recent pic from Chandra of Casseopia A. The elemental layers are much in evidence as is the scarcity of iron. The neutron star appears to have been developed and birthed directly from the iron core as evidenced by the everting of the star body.

  • Tim Gomez March 24, 2012, 4:15 PM

    Imagine if we could harness this energy! The endless energy supply!

  • Aqua4U March 24, 2012, 4:34 PM

    IR prejudiced? Don’t forget the UV, RF and X-rays! OR the effects of the solar wind’s charged particles on our mag. field.

  • JM March 24, 2012, 7:54 PM

    I wonder about the effect these intense storms have on the Mercury Messenger satellite.?

    • Torbjörn Larsson March 24, 2012, 10:01 PM

      Good catch! It must be overly radiation hardened and well tested, I don’t think I have heard of any restarts. Even Dawn has had their hiccups.

      Or maybe they happen all the time, and the team is taking them as natural and don’t press release them. (Or maybe I missed them, most likely.)

      A potential UT topic, methinks.

  • agbjarn March 25, 2012, 3:04 PM

    I note that the Solar Cycle Graph shown at time 4:00 in the video is from January 3 2012. It is rather outdated. Please see the current one here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SolarCycle/
    and note how the graph has fallen three months in a row…

  • agbjarn March 25, 2012, 3:06 PM

    I note that the Solar Cycle Graph shown at time 4:00 in the video is from January 3 2012. It is rather outdated. Please see the current one here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SolarCycle/
    and note how the graph has fallen three months in a row…

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