• Elaine Friebele


The news that the Earth is losing 1,000 gallons of water every day is nothing for the planet's inhabitants to sweat, given the vast amount of water in the oceans. But this new information, gathered from measurements on the POLAR satellite, has shed new light on ways that water and other materials leave the atmosphere. The new data should also improve models of how the atmospheres of Earth and other planets evolve.

Using a unique instrument to reduce electrical interference from the satellite, the research team took the first accurate high-altitude measurements of the polar wind—charged gas or plasma that escapes from Earth and its ionosphere through the poles. The team, headed by Los Alamos physicist Beth Nordholt, proved that the polar wind is one mechanism by which the atomic constituents of water vapor and other atmospheric gases are dragged outward from the ionosphere, where they spiral along the planet's magnet field lines. Sunlight breaks the water into ionized hydrogen and oxygen gases in the upper atmosphere.