Sunny forecast: Atmospheric waves discovered on the sun

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The same kind of large-scale waves that meander through the atmosphere high above Earth’s surface also exist on the sun — a discovery that may lead to more accurate space weather forecasting.

The waves that form over the Earth — which are one type of Rossby waves — have a major influence on weather patterns. The waves discovered on the sun may be intimately tied to solar activity, including the formation of sunspots, the behavior of active regions, and the eruption of solar flares.

This is according to a new study led by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“The discovery of magnetized Rossby waves on the sun offers the tantalizing possibility that we can predict space weather much further in advance,” said NCAR scientist Scott McIntosh, lead author of the paper published March 27 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Unlike Earth, which is scrutinized at numerous angles by satellites in space, scientists historically have been able to study the sun from only one viewpoint: as seen from the direction of Earth.

But during 2011–14, scientists had the unprecedented opportunity to see the sun’s entire atmosphere at once from three NASA observatories.

The research team’s analysis found bands of magnetized activity that propagate slowly across the sun — just like the Rossby waves found on Earth.

The discovery could link a range of solar phenomena that are also related to the sun’s magnetic field, including the formation and duration of sunspots and the origin of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle.