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May-June 2017

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Weather Front

Cooling After Solar Flares

It has long been known that violent solar activity wreaks havoc on the earth's upper atmosphere, but until now nobody knew why a resulting temperature spike of hundreds of degrees is followed immediately by cooling of even greater intensity.

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) result in electrically charged plasma blasting toward the earth at speeds approaching 1 million miles an hour, endangering satellites in orbit and electrical infrastructure on the ground.

Researchers at the University of Colorado say they have learned that CMEs also produce shock waves, like a supersonic airplane breaking the sound barrier. When those waves strike the ionosphere, not only does the activity expand the atmosphere and raise its temperature by as much as 750°Fahrenheit, but the energy infusion also creates the trace chemical nitric oxide, which rapidly cools the atmosphere by about 930°F and shrinks it as well.

MIKE BRANOM's interest in weather began in 2004 when Hurricane Charley rolled through Central Florida, where he was working as a reporter. He now lives in Pasadena, California, where he eagerly awaits an opportunity to go atmospheric river-rafting.

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