How space weather affects
real-time technology

What happens when the sun flares up

Solar flare.

An image of the sun on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, from the Solar X-Ray Imager on NOAA's GOES satellite, during the strongest solar radiation storm since 2005. Recent activity has taken place in the bright region in the upper right corner of the sun.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA)

Economies around the world have become increasingly vulnerable to the ever-changing nature of the sun. Solar flares can disrupt power grids, interfere with high-frequency airline and military communications, disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, interrupt civilian communications, and blanket the Earth’s upper atmosphere with hazardous radiation.

Monitoring and forecasting solar outbursts in time to reduce their effect on space-based technologies have become new national priorities. And NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), part of NOAA’s National Weather Service, is the nation’s official source of space weather forecasts, alerts, and warnings.

“The Space Weather Prediction Center is critical to our economy because each time we use a cell phone or pager, check a GPS locator, turn on a light, or take an over-the-pole flight, space weather could have an effect,” said Jack Hayes, Ph.D., director of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Solar flare effects on Earth.

Solar flare effects on Earth.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Looking toward the sun

To monitor events on the sun, SWPC staff utilize a variety of ground- and space-based sensors and imaging systems to view activity at various depths in the solar atmosphere. A worldwide network of USAF-sponsored optical observatories also provides space weather forecasters with detailed, plain-language information about activity in and around sunspot groups, as well as other areas of interest on the sun.

Space weather forecasters also analyze the 27-day recurrent pattern of solar activity. Based on a thorough analysis of current conditions, comparing these conditions to past situations, and using numerical models similar to weather models, forecasters are able to predict space weather on times scales of hours to weeks.

With effective alerts and warnings, we can minimize the hazards to technology. For example, satellite operations can be adjusted, power grids can be modified, and polar flights can be rerouted.

A brighter future

Scientists and forecasters work closely with government and university partners to develop prediction models and other tools to improve services to the nation’s space weather community. SWPC also helps move the latest computer models of solar dynamics and sun-Earth interactions into the daily operations of space weather prediction.

NOAA and partner agencies in the National Space Weather Program are leading the way in this new era of space weather awareness to provide timely, accurate information and forecasts to help keep our advanced-technology global economy moving forward.

Visit the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center or follow space weather on Facebook.