Regulation of ionospheric plasma velocities by thermospheric winds

Thomas J. Immel, Brian J. Harding, Roderick A. Heelis, Astrid Maute, Jeffrey M. Forbes, Scott L. England, Stephen B. Mende, Christoph R. Englert, Russell A. Stoneback, Kenneth Marr, John M. Harlander, Jonathan J. Makela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Earth’s equatorial ionosphere exhibits substantial and unpredictable day-to-day variations in density and morphology. This presents challenges in preparing for adverse impacts on geopositioning systems and radio communications even 24 hours in advance. The variability is now theoretically understood as a manifestation of thermospheric weather, where winds in the upper atmosphere respond strongly to a spectrum of atmospheric waves that propagate into space from the lower and middle atmosphere. First-principles simulations predict related, large changes in the ionosphere, primarily through modification of wind-driven electromotive forces: the wind-driven dynamo. Here we show the first direct evidence of the action of a wind dynamo in space, using the coordinated, space-based observations of winds and plasma motion made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ionospheric Connection Explorer. A clear relationship is found between vertical plasma velocities measured at the magnetic equator near 600 km and the thermospheric winds much farther below. Significant correlations are found between the plasma and wind velocities during several successive precession cycles of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer’s orbit. Prediction of thermospheric winds in the 100–150 km altitude range emerges as the key to improved prediction of Earth’s plasma environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)893-898
Number of pages6
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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