Giant Waves on the Sun Act Like Those in Earth's Atmosphere

The sun is a swirling, spitting mass of incredibly hot charged particles called plasma. But that motion isn't all random—and scientists have just confirmed new details about one of the phenomena that control the movement of the sun's contents.

That phenomenon is called a Rossby wave, and scientists have been looking for it in the sun for decades. Now, a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, found these waves can last several months and reach more than 1,000 miles below the sun's surface.

The first evidence for solar Rossby waves came last year, when scientists tracking bright spots in the outermost layer of the sun watched them gradually drift. The team behind the new paper used six years' worth of observations to track the sun's activity to identify and measure the impact of Rossby waves.

Read more: The Great American Eclipse Created a Giant Wave in Earth's Atmosphere

These waves are caused by the rotation of a star or planet and create patches that rotate in the opposite direction. Unusually, the new paper only found evidence for Rossby waves directly over the sun's equator, not further to the north or south.

Scientists wanted to better understand what's happening on the sun because some of those phenomena have effects reaching far beyond the sun. For example, giant ejections of plasma out into space can impact communication and navigation satellites orbiting Earth.

Rossby waves also occur here on Earth in the upper atmosphere and in the ocean. In the atmosphere, they shape weather patterns like the jet stream and distribute heat more evenly between the equator and the poles.

The sun is constantly monitored by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which produced both this image and the data used in the new paper. NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Handout via Reuters

The marine versions can take months to cross the Pacific near the equator but travel much more slowly farther to the north and south. While they move the surface of the ocean just a few inches, they can reach 300 feet deep, where warm and cool water meet.

And chances are, there are plenty more places in our solar system where scientists can find these waves lurking in the atmosphere. In particular, they think the distinctive hexagon of clouds that covers Saturn's north pole may also be caused by the phenomenon.