Steep latitudinal gradients of thermospheric composition during magnetic storms: a possible formation mechanism
Abstract. Mass spectrometer satellite observations show that a narrow region with steep latitudinal gradients of neutral composition is formed in the subauroral winter thermosphere during magnetic storms. In order to analyze the relative importance of individual terms in the continuity equation for atomic oxygen, a two-dimensional model was used to simulate the thermospheric disturbance formation in response to intense Joule heating imposed in the auroral oval. Such an approach allowed three characteristic zones to be distinguished in the high-latitude thermosphere at heights of about 250 km. It was shown that vertical transport is of greatest importance within the local heating region. Horizontal transport dominates at subauroral latitudes near the mid-night edge of the auroral oval. Propagation of the disturbances to middle latitudes is prohibited near the noon edge of the oval by a strong counteraction of a poleward meridional wind. Here is a "relaxation zone" defined as the region which is spread to the equator from the boundary between the local heating area and the subauroral zone in the noon sector LT. It is at this boundary that composition distributions with steep latitudinal gradient are formed within the first few hours of Joule heating source action. Perturbations transported to middle latitudes during the periods when the meridional wind is directed equatorward begin to relax in this zone with a characteristic time scale of about 7 h, independent of season. However, in winter, composition at subauroral latitudes recovers to unperturbed N2/O values before the wind again turns equatorward, giving rise to a distribution with steep latitudinal gradient recovering. In summer, a complete relaxation cannot be reached due to a shorter time interval with poleward wind and a larger disturbance amplitude. These two factors result in an effective smoothing of the initial steep gradient and a more regular latitudinal distribution of composition is observed in the summer thermosphere.