Equatorial density depletions observed at 840 km during the great magnetic storm of March 1989


  • M. E. Greenspan,

  • C. E. Rasmussen,

  • W. J. Burke,

  • M. A. Abdu


Early on March 14, 1989, a thermal plasma probe on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F9 spacecraft detected extensive and dramatic decreases in the ion density at 840 km, near 2130 LT, during two consecutive transequatorial passes over South America. The order of magnitude decreases in the ion density extended more than 4000 km along the satellite track. The depletions were accompanied by upward and westward plasma drifts, both in excess of 100 m/s. Their onsets and terminations were marked by extremely sharp density gradients. DMSP F9 observed no similar depletions over the Atlantic during preceding orbits. A partial depletion was detected over the eastern Pacific during the following orbit. The DMSP F9 ground track passed slightly west of a Brazilian total electron content (TEC) station and two Brazilian ionosondes during the first depletion encounter. The TEC fell far below normal during the night of March 13–14. The ionosonde measurements indicate that, in the hour after sunset, before DMSP passed through the depletions, the F2 layer rose rapidly and disappeared, but at the time of the first depletion encounter, hmF2 was decreasing over one of the stations. The DMSP F8 satellite, which orbits in the dawn-dusk meridian, made related measurements on March 13 and 14. Crossing the equator at dust on March 13, at the same longitude where DMSP F9 encountered the first depletion, DMSP F8 detected upward and westward drifts, but it measured extremely large rather then depleted ion densities. During two dawn passes over the eastern Pacific on March 14, DMSP F8 observed depletions somewhat similar to those detected by DMSP F9. Large westward drifts accompanied the depletions detected by DMSP F8. It is quite probable that the morningside depletions detected on March 14 are remnants of those detected earlier by DMSP F9 in the evening sector. We develop a phenomenological model reconciling DMSP F8, F9, and ground-based measurements. Our calculations show that rapid upward drifts sustained for several hours can produce depletions in the equatorial ion density with sharp gradients at their high-latitude boundaries, consistent with the data. We discuss possible contributing mechanisms for generating these upward drifts. These include direct penetration of the magnetospheric electric field to low latitudes, the electric fields generated by the disturbance dynamo, and the effects of conductivity gradients near the dusk terminator and the South Atlantic anomaly.