What are solar tornadoes?

(Wedemeyer-Böhm/Parts of the image produced with VAPOR)

The surface of the sun burns at a mere 6,000 kelvins (10,340 degrees Fahrenheit) while the atmosphere surrounding it exceeds temperatures of 500,000 kelvins (about 900,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

That seems crazy, right? Things should grow universally cooler as you move out from the core.* Why would temperatures suddenly rise 300 fold in the sun's atmosphere?

Scientists have wondered this for a while. Then in 2012 an international team led by Norway's Sven Wedemeyer-Böhm found a likely cause: enormous magnetic tornadoes that inject heat into the sun's outer atmospheric corona layer.

As this Space.com infographic illustrates, some of these tornadoes are as large as five Earths! Unlike our terrestrial twisters, solar tornadoes are composed of flowing gasses and tangled magnetic fields -- but the basic flow is the same. The vortex ascends through the three layers of the sun's atmosphere (photosphere, the chromosphere and corona) and disperses the hot gasses while cooling the surface.

Here's a 3D visualization of one of these titans in action:

* That core, mind you, hits 15 million kelvins (about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit).

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.