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Did Earth’s magnetic field collapse for 2 hours on April 23?

No, Earth’s magnetic field did not collapse for 2 hours on April 23. The erroneous story, which is still spreading, originated with a glitch in a computer simulation.

An illustration of Earth’s magnetic field shielding our planet from solar particles. Image via NASA/GSFC/SVS.

An illustration of Earth’s magnetic field shielding our planet from solar particles. Image via NASA/GSFC/SVS.

We’ve been getting lots of questions like this one:

Did Earth’s magnetic field collapse for two hours on April 23?

The answer is no, Earth’s magnetic field did not collapse. Here’s all that really happened on April 23. A website claimed that the magnetic field did collapse and suggested that that worldwide disasters would result:

A stunning and terrifying event has taken place in space surrounding our planet; for two hours today, Earth’s magnetosphere COLLAPSED around the entire planet! The magnetosphere is what protects earth from solar winds and some radiation.

This morning at 01:37:05 eastern U.S. Time, which is 05:37:05 UTC, satellites from the NASA Space Weather Prediction Center detected a complete collapse of earth’s magnetosphere! It simply vanished for just over two hours, resuming as normal around 03:39:51 eastern US time, which is 07:39:51 UTC.

Let’s ignore the fact that no stunning or terrifying disasters happened that day, at least no more so than on any ordinary day. In fact, if they’d checked, the website would have learned that what really happened on April 23 was a glitch in a computer simulation, not a real event happening in nature.

EarthSky spoke with M. Leila Mays of the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She told EarthSky:

The images in the incorrect article are referred to as being from NASA space weather satellites, but they are actually simulation results.

The images were taken from the integrated space weather analysis system, a tool to display some of the real-time simulations of the models available at the the Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC).

The CCMC – which provides access to the international scientific community to space science simulations – subsequently placed a notice on its website, saying:

[A computer model] run provided erroneous results for the morning of April 23, 2016. The erroneous results were caused by a glitch in our system that allowed the model to ingest bad real-time solar wind data.

We are in the process of addressing the glitch and will post more information when available.

The model itself is called the Space Weather Modeling Framework (SWMF). The researchers were running Version 2011 of this model on the morning of April 23. Mays explained:

There is a gap in simulation output for a couple hours after this because the simulation crashed (due to the bad input data).

When the simulation restarted it was back to normal.

So … you can relax!

Click here to see some nice visualizations from the SWMF model

View larger. | Artist's depiction of solar wind colliding with Earth's magnetosphere (size and distance are not to scale).  Image via NASA.

View larger. | Artist’s depiction of solar wind colliding with Earth’s magnetosphere (size and distance are not to scale). Image via NASA.

Bottom line: No, Earth’s magnetic field did not collapse for two hours on April 23, 2016.

Deborah Byrd

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