Every now and then, the familiar old sun makes headlines by unleashing a giant flare into space. But even when things appear calm, our star keeps reminding us that it is a wild place. In June scientists announced that they had discovered tornadoes of searing gas at least 1,200 miles high ripping across the solar surface.
The first hint of such twisters appeared in 2009, when Norwegian astrophysicist Sven Wedemeyer-Böhm spotted thousand-mile-wide swirls of gas in images of the sun’s surface from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and from the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope. He had a hunch those swirls were part of a bigger structure, and a computer simulation proved him right: In aggregate, the swirls could twist the sun’s magnetic field, causing it to launch a huge spinning funnel of gas. Wedemeyer-Böhm’s team took a closer look at the telescope data and have now identified 14 tornadoes.
Wedemeyer-Böhm estimates that there are at least 11,000 tornadoes roaming the solar surface at any time, each lasting about 10 minutes and hurling gas at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The tornadoes are incredibly effective at transporting energy upward, which could help explain why the sun’s upper atmosphere is more than a million degrees Fahrenheit hotter than its surface.