126. Successive interacting coronal mass ejections: How to create a perfect storm?

Author: Gordon Koehn (Imperial College), Ravindra Desai (University of Warwick, Imperial College), Emma Davies (University of New Hampshire), Robert Forsyth and Jonathan Eastwood (Imperial College), Stefaan Poedts (KU Leuven, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University).

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Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large bundles of magnetic flux that erupt from the solar corona releasing vast amounts of energy across incredible short time periods. Several studies have examined multiple successive interplanetary CMEs and determined that preconditioning of the solar wind, where an initial CME clears the path for a second CME [1], and CME–CME collisions [2], can result in a significant increase in geo-effectivness, i.e., the severity of the impact on Earth. In this study, we model CME-CME interactions to address the question of what upstream conditions can produce a particularly geo-effective event, i.e. a “perfect storm” at the Earth.

Figure 1. Magnetic field lines of (a) the initialised spheromak and (b) after 60 minutes of evolution, in static heliospheric conditions representative of conditions 0.1 au. The color is proportional to the normalized magnetic field magnitude.

MHD Simulations

We employ a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) heliospheric model [1] and self-consistently model the solar wind evolving through the inner heliosphere as well as the insertion and evolution of multiple spheromak [3] flux rope CMEs. The baseline scenario has been chosen to be two CMEs with velocities of 500 km/s and 1500 km/s respectively, originating from the same active region and their interactions and the resultant geo-effectiveness characterised. Figure 1 shows the force-free implementation of the spheromak.

Figure 2. Maximal values for the range of waiting times CME1 and CME2 are simulated for. (a) shows the radial velocity, (b) shows the number density (c) the dynamic pressure (d) the Bz, (e) the predicted Dst, and (f) the predicted subsolar magnetopause stand-off distance.

Parametric Study Outcomes

Stage 1 determined the most geo-effective tilt angle in the solar corona and showed how the southward magnetic field orientation and magnetic flux was well-conserved from initialisation through to 1 AU.

Stage 2 then examined waiting times between the release of the first and second CME of 12, 16, 20, and 24 hr which corresponded to full mergers of the CME sheath regions at ≈0.5, 0.7, and 0.9 AU, and just after Earth, respectively. The results are displayed in Figure 2. All other runs do not exhibit a merger within the simulation domain extending up to 1.1 AU. Thus, one may identify the first three simulations, 12–20 hr waiting times, as collision events and the last two, 32–36 hr waiting times, as preconditioning cases. The events in the middle of these exhibit features of both regimes. Figure 2 shows the minimum Bz and minimum Dst (Disturbance storm time index) is found to occur for a waiting time of 28 hr but the closest subsolar magnetopause stand-off distance is found for a waiting time of 20 hr. Rapid magnetopause compressions can have a dramatic effect on the Earth’s radiation belts [4] and the multiple geo-effectiveness measures thus highlight the multi-faceted nature of CME-CME interactions.

Table 1. Summary of the Extrema of Handedness CME-CME Runs. Accompanied by Single CME Runs of CME1 and CME2 for comparison.

Stage 3 then examined the effect of the handedness or chirality of the CMEs with the results presented in Table 1. A clear trend from positive to negative handedness is identified and the handedness of the first CME has a higher influence than the handedness of the second CME. These differences in geo-effectiveness would already change the classification of the geomagnetic storm from strong to severe. It is thus a significant finding that the handedness of spheromak in CME–CME interactions can have such a dramatic effect on the geo-effectiveness.

To investigate the cause of this dramatic impact, Figure 3 shows the y-plane profiles of Bϕ and the 3D magnetic field lines projected onto that plane. Table 1 and Figure 3 shows that when the CME field lines orient in the same direction as the Parker spiral, this results in greater conservation of field lines within the spheromak. A negative handedness, H = −1, on the other hand, leads to field lines of spheromak and Parker spiral flowing in opposing directions on the outward radial side. This results in the greater erosion of the spheromak due to magnetic reconnection [5,6,7] and explains the de facto erosion of magnetic flux for the H:[−1, −1] case.

Figure 3. Meridional plane profiles and selected magnetic field lines for the collision of CME1 and CME2, 40 hr after CME1 initialisation. Each handedness variation is shown (a) and (b) for a waiting time of 20 hr and tilt angles of τ = 180°.


This study has conducted a parametric evaluation of successive interacting coronal mass ejections in a representative heliospheric environment. Our study demonstrates how two moderate CMEs can combine to produce an event with extreme characteristics and geo-effectiveness. Another major finding was that the handedness, or chirality in CME–CME interactions can have a significant effect on the geo-effectiveness and implicates the identification of CME chirality in the solar corona [8,9] as an important early diagnostic for forecasting the effects of geomagnetic storms involving multiple CMEs. This work highlights the need for self-consistent physics-based modelling approaches to capture the magnetized interactions within our heliosphere.

For more details see The Astrophysical Journal citation:
G. J. Koehn et al., 2022, ApJ, 941 139, doi 10.3847/1538-4357/aca28c.


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