Environment

Radioactive Dust

As a huge plume of Saharan dust cast a pall over parts of Spain and France in early March, a leading expert warned that the desert particles can still contain residual radioactivity from the 1960s French nuclear tests in southern Algeria.

Radiation protection expert Pierre Barbey of France’s University of Caen Normandy says he analyzed Saharan dust that fell on his car in the Alps during a recent episode and found it contained minute amounts of cesium-137 created by the blasts. While the radiation is now too weak to harm humans, Barbey says the finding “does say a lot about the persistence of radioactive pollution.”

EWCOLOR

First Space Hurricane

Typical hurricanes are easy to spot in satellite imagery: Swirling clouds surround a quiet eye. These storms usually form in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, closer to Earth’s surface, and unleash heavy rain and strong winds.

But according to a recent study, space hurricanes are wholly different beasts.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, describes the first space hurricane ever spotted. Satellites observed it in August 2014 – a swirling mass with a quiet center more than 125 miles above the North Pole.

Whereas regular hurricanes churn air, this space hurricane was an eddy of plasma, a type of super hot, charged gas found throughout the solar system. And instead of rain, this storm brought showers of electrons.

The space hurricane was more than 998 kilometres wide, and high in the sky – it formed in the ionosphere layer. The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling in a counter-clockwise direction. It had several spiral arms snaking out from its center, according to the researchers, a bit like a spiral galaxy. Once it had formed, the storm acted like a channel from space into Earth’s atmosphere – funnelling some electrons down past the planet’s armour.