Sunday, September 26, 2021

Atmospheric Metal Layers Appear With Surprising Regularity

Twice a day, at dusk and just before dawn, atmospheric metal layers of sodium and other metals begin sinking down through the atmosphere about 90 miles above the city of Boulder, Colorado. The movement of these atmospheric metal layers was captured by one of the world’s most sensitive “lidar” instruments and reported Tuesday in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters

The metals in those layers come originally from meteoroids blasting into Earth’s atmosphere, which bring an unknown amount of material to earth; and the regularly appearing layers promise to help researchers understand better how earth’s atmosphere interacts with space, ultimately supporting life. Xinzhao Chu, CIRES Fellow, CU Boulder professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and lead author of the new assessment, said:

“This is an important discovery because we have never seen these dusk/dawn features before, and because these metal layers affect many things. The metals can fall into the ocean and act as fertilizer for ecosystems, the ionized metals can affect GPS radio signals…”

First time atmospheric metal layers seen so regularly

It is the first time that the atmospheric metal layers have been seen so regularly at these extreme heights in the atmosphere. Such high-altitude atmospheric metal layers were discovered by Chu’s group just 10 years ago above McMurdo, Antarctica, but there they occur more sporadically.

Lidar was used to detect the atmospheric metal layers.
The word ‘LiDAR’ was created using a flashlight. (Image: Zhibin Yu / CIRES, CU Boulder, Harbin Institute of Technology)

Above Boulder, they’re consistent, daily, and synched with high-atmospheric “tidal winds” created by the Sun’s periodic appearance. To understand those winds, the research team relied on data from NASA’s ICON satellite. Thomas Immel, Principal Investigator of the ICON Mission and a physicist at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, said:   

“This work was the very first use of the ICON tidal wind product. The product allowed Xinzhao’s team to calculate the flow of metal ions over Boulder. It’s a great example of how these tides seem to affect everything in space near Earth.”

The atmospheric metal layers come originally from meteoroids blasting into Earth’s atmosphere, which bring an unknown amount of material to Earth.
The metals in those layers come originally from meteoroids blasting into Earth’s atmosphere, which bring an unknown amount of material to Earth; and the regularly appearing layers promise to help researchers understand better how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with space, ultimately supporting life. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Jackson Jandreau who worked alongside Chu and Yingfei Chen in this study, said:

“Consistent daily patterns seen in our Boulder observations tell us that there are unknown processes at play, a golden opportunity for atmospheric scientists to discover new phenomena and mechanisms.”

The discovery also gives researchers a window into a crucial part of the atmosphere that is challenging to observe. It’s a complicated region where interactions between the Sun, Earth, our planet’s magnetic field, and other phenomena end up creating environmental conditions in which surface life can thrive, protected from the harsh space environment. Intriguingly, Chu said:

“There are metals in the atmospheres of other planetary bodies, such as Mars, and researchers look for Earth-like features on exoplanets as indicators for hospitable environments. Can these metal layers be one of these features?” 

Her team used a powerful atmospheric LiDAR to detect and measure very small quantities of particles in the high atmosphere. Lidar is similar to radar. A signal is sent out toward a target and the target returns part of that signal which is collected by a receiver. In radar, the signal is radio waves; in lidar, it is photons from a laser. The return signal can be analyzed to learn about the targets hit and the space that the beam traveled through. Chu’s group developed the highly sensitive instrument with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Provided by: CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.
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