AUG 11, 2020 11:19 AM PDT

"Surfer waves" documented in the upper atmosphere

Clemson University researcher Rafael Mesquita has collaborated with his peers to document what he is calling atmospheric surfer waves in the upper atmosphere. According to Mesquita, the waves appear visually similar to crashing ocean waves, except these surfer waves crash into different layers of the atmosphere, bringing with them oxygen and nitrogen.

Photo: Pixabay

As background knowledge, oxygen is usually found high in the atmosphere while nitrogen is found lower in the atmosphere, closer to Earth's surface. "For many years, atmospheric scientists have studied oxygen showing up lower than it should be, but we identified a possible cause for it and revealed more detail than ever before," said Mesquita, who published his work in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics.

In order to document these surfer waves, Mesquita’s team launched rockets at the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. The rockets released a non-toxic gas as a contrast medium to illuminate the atmospheric wind patterns, which the team was then able to photograph. The NASA-funded project was called the Super Soaker campaign.

"Our measurements were made at 65 miles above Earth's surface and showed winds swirling at about 100 miles per hour," Mesquita said.

These waves occur because of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability (KHI) effect. Watch the video below to see the effect in action.

These findings suggest that winds in the upper atmosphere carry gases farther than we have previously thought. "These surfer waves offer insight into the complex system of Earth's atmosphere where slight temperature changes on one side of the world affect wind patterns on the other," Mesquita concluded. "The upper reaches of the atmosphere may seem like a world away, but what happens up there affects us more than we may realize."

Sources: Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics, Eureka Alert

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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