The northern lights offer an amazing celestial spectacle. Although the phenomenon is visible only when it’s dark outside, it can occur at any time. During an aurora, the magnetic field of the Earth gets distorted.
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) October 23, 2022
A certain type of aurora is also causing the ozone layer’s depletion – the isolated proton aurora, to be more precise. According to space.com, an international research team discovered that the isolated proton aurora is to blame for a huge hole forming in the ozone layer. The hole measures about 250 miles wide. The evidence is pretty strong, as the hole formed below the place of formation of the aurora.
Kazuo Shiokawa, who is a professor at Nagoya University’s Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research, explained:
Researchers from a wide range of research fields related to plasma physics, aurora science, trace atmospheric composition sensing, and electromagnetic wave engineering were brought together to achieve comprehensive observations through international cooperation.
He also added, as the same source quotes:
Isolated proton auroras can be observed by scientific all-sky cameras,
Although it is a rather weak aurora, it is also visible to a regular person.
Until now, scientists weren’t aware of the influence of charged particles from the plasma provided by coronal mass ejections and solar flares. Such particles can affect the ozone layer.
The ozone layer refers to the high concentration of ozone located in the stratosphere, meaning around 15 to 30 km above the surface of the Earth.
The word ‘ozone’ comes from the Greek language, and it means ‘smelly’ because of the strong odor of the gas.
Auroras don’t emerge only on our planet. For instance, they can also appear on Jupiter, the biggest planet in our Solar System. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) proved it back in August when it published photos of Jupiter and its glowing and beautiful auroras.
— Janice Kyakundwa, PhD (@kyakundwa) October 12, 2022
The team found that the effects of the “isolated aurora” caused a 250-mile (400 km) wide hole in the ozone layer as it exploded below where the aurora occurred. Most of the ozone was gone in about an hour and a half. In their statement, the team explained that scientists did not expect so much ozone to be destroyed by this phenomenon.
Isolated proton auroras may not be as bright as the northern and southern lights, but they are still visible to the human eye.
It is known that the explosion of plasma ignited by the sun brings with it high-energy ions and electrons. These particles end up getting stuck in Van Allen Earth’s inner and outer radiation belts, which prevent the particles from directly bombarding the planet and turning it into a Mars-like desert.
Particles that reach the inner radiation belt can interfere with the Earth’s atmosphere by penetrating the magnetic field lines. Its charge ionizes the atmosphere and produces oxides of nitrogen and hydrogen. Both compounds contribute to ozone loss.
This, in fact, applies only to the ozone layer in the mesosphere, and the most important lower layer, the stratosphere, remains unaffected. However, isolated proton auroras affect the Earth in other ways.
“The fallout of electrons from the Earth’s radiation belt plays an important role in the loss of the ozone layer as a link between space weather and the climate system,” the scientists wrote in the study, which was published Oct. 11 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Although atmospheric ozone damage in the stratospheric ozone layer (often caused by human activities) is rapidly recovering, isolated proton aurorae still influence changes in the atmosphere. Space weather can disrupt satellites and electrical infrastructure, and charged particles also pose a risk to astronauts.
The findings will help scientists predict fluctuations in space weather that could affect the planet’s atmosphere.