The Great American Eclipse of 2017 left 'bow waves' in Earth's atmosphere

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 left 'bow waves' in Earth's atmosphere

Just about everybody and their grandma spent August 21st, 2017 looking up at the sky wearing a pair of cheap paper glasses, trying to see the Great American Eclipse, but few people realized that they were witnessing a landmark moment in scientific history.

The event created heat-energy ripples or "bow waves", something akin to the V-shaped waves left behind by a ship moving through water, in Earth's upper atmosphere, Gizmodo reports.

Previously, a 2011 study claimed to have detected 55 bow waves and stern waves, but this was based on limited coverage over East Asia during an eclipse on July 22, 2009, the researchers noted.

Scientists initially proposed the idea that the moon's rapidly moving shadow across the planet during a solar eclipse causes gravity waves in the upper, ionized part of Earth's atmosphere, Science Alert said. "That was the surprise we found. we had a large coverage and our system is sensitive enough to be able to see these smaller variations". The unusual impact of solar eclipse on the atmosphere has been termed as "Wake" by the research team. "That was really very interesting to us". "Similar bow waves, including stern waves, occur also when aeroplanes travel through the air at the speed of sound", said Zhang, who worked with his colleagues at Haystack Observatory and the University of Tromso, in Norway, to do this study. The data for the observations was collected using a network of about 2,000 Global Navigation Satellite System receivers across the country.

As per the report that was given by the researchers, the first unambiguous evidence of bow waves as electron content disturbances over central and eastern United States, with 1-hour duration, 300-400 km wavelength and 280 m/s phase speed emanating from and tailing the totality region.


Thanks to the technological advances, scientists were able to identify complex interconnections between the sun, moon and Planet Earth's neutral atmosphere and ionosphere.

The following is an abstract from a paper from 1976 on the phenomenon.

In the course of a solar eclipse, the moon passes between the sun and earth, casting its shadow in a narrow path across parts of the planet. Upper atmospheric disturbances having quasi-periods of about 20 min were recorded after the eclipse of March 7th 1970 and were regarded as possible verification of this suggestion, but observations following the eclipse of June 30th 1973 did not detect such disturbances. This way, they managed to observe for the first time the waves it formed in the ionosphere. Also, as the location is not fixed, but it moves, this motion leads to the apparition of a series of bow waves in the ionosphere.

Here's how the Smithsonian Institute describes bow shocks and bow waves.

The moon's shadow created waves which looked as a boat sailing in the ocean. Streamlined shapes, mimicking those found in nature, are created to produce as small a bow wave as possible.

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