The terrestrial ring current: Origin, formation, and decay


  • Ioannis A. Daglis,

  • Richard M. Thorne,

  • Wolfgang Baumjohann,

  • Stefano Orsini


The terrestrial ring current is an electric current flowing toroidally around the Earth, centered at the equatorial plane and at altitudes of ∼10,000–60,000 km. Changes in this current are responsible for global decreases in the Earth's surface magnetic field, which are known as geomagnetic storms. Intense geomagnetic storms have severe effects on technological systems, such as disturbances or even permanent damage to telecommunication and navigation satellites, telecommunication cables, and power grids. The main carriers of the storm ring current are positive ions, with energies from ∼1 keV to a few hundred keV, which are trapped by the geomagnetic field and undergo an azimuthal drift. The ring current is formed by the injection of ions originating in the solar wind and the terrestrial ionosphere. The injection process involves electric fields, associated with enhanced magnetospheric convection and/or magnetospheric substorms. The quiescent ring current is carried mainly by protons of predominantly solar wind origin, while geospace activity tends to increase the abundance (both absolute and relative) of O+ ions, which are of ionospheric origin. During intense magnetic storms, the O+ abundance increases dramatically, resulting in a rapid intensification of the ring current and an O+ dominance around storm maximum. This compositional change affects, among other processes, the decay of the ring current through the species- and energy-dependent charge exchange and wave-particle scattering loss. Energetic neutral atoms, products of charge exchange, enable global imaging of the ring current and are the most promising diagnostic tool of ring current evolution. This review will cover the origin of ring current particles, their transport and acceleration, the effects of compositional variations in the ring current, the effects of substorms on ring current growth, and the dynamics of ring current decay with an emphasis on the process of charge exchange and the potential for wave scattering loss.