When the Sun acts up, NOAA knows why

Peak solar activity expected in 2013


Image of the Sun.

Forecasters from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., use information from many sources to understand and predict potentially dangerous space weather heading toward Earth. This image of the Sun is from NASA’s STEREO satellites.

(Credit: NASA)

On a summer day in 1859, a silent surge of power from a major geomagnetic storm fueled by a solar eruption hit telegraph offices around the world. Some telegraph operators got electric shocks. Papers caught fire. And perhaps most amazing, many telegraph systems still sent and received signals even after operators disconnected batteries.

It was as if the very air was charged with electricity.

In some ways it was, said Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, or SWPC, in Boulder, Colo.

“We now know how powerful space weather can be and how events that begin on the surface of the Sun can end up wreaking havoc here on Earth,” said Bogdan. “This is why NOAA has a Space Weather Prediction Center — to forecast when space weather is coming our way, so we can avoid or mitigate damages.”

Chris Balch (seated), David Marshall and Meghan Stockman.

Chris Balch (seated), David Marshall and Meghan Stockman check the latest space weather event reports. The three work as forecasters at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, a 24/7 operational space weather forecasting center in Boulder, Colo . The center advises industries affected by space weather, such as satellite operations, electrical grid operations and airlines.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA)

Bursting with electrical energy

When a burst of charged particles ejected from the Sun’s corona (the solar atmosphere) barreled into Earth’s magnetic field at more than 5 million miles an hour in 1859, it triggered brilliant auroras — those fascinating displays of light caused by the collision of charged particles  in Earth’s atmosphere — visible as far south as the Caribbean. The ejection also induced currents that surged through telegraph cables, the electrical systems of the time.

Today, humans rely on many more systems that are vulnerable to space weather:

In fact, a storm of similar magnitude today could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damage, globally, according a 2008 report of the National Research Council.

Power grid managers and systems operators are keeping a close eye on SWPC forecasts, especially as the Sun enters an active phase of activity that peaks about every 11 years. The next solar maximum is expected in 2013.

When a space weather storm is on the way, satellite operators can switch into standby mode and temporarily forgo communication between ground control and spacecraft in orbit to prevent the garbling of messages . Airlines can reroute planes that normally take fuel-saving polar routes. Along those routes, pilots depend on high-frequency (HF) radio communications that are vulnerable to disruptions by space weather. This impact has already occurred in 2011: during space weather events in February and June, airlines reported loss of HF communication near the Arctic.

aurora.

An aurora, as seen over the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 28, 2011.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA)

Here comes the Sun

Teams of forecasters staff SWPC’s operations center 24/7, watching monitors intently for “space weather fronts” that might be heading toward Earth. The forecasters rely on data from a network of monitors, including NOAA and NASA satellites, and U.S. Geological Survey sensors that detect magnetic fields (magnetometers). At NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md., experts control the spacecraft that closely monitor solar activity and process the data that go into the SWPC forecasts. The SWPC issues space weather alerts, noting triggers that are important to different users. Its forecasters also speak daily with NASA – anyone in low Earth orbit could receive an extra dose of radiation when energized particles sweep by.

Today, Bogdan and his colleagues have several new missions, too, made more critical by people’s increasing reliance on vulnerable systems and by the impending solar maximum. They’re working with the United Kingdom’s Meteorology Office to help the UK set up what could become a long-awaited backup to SWPC. The United States and Britain are collaborating to create a sophisticated new model for more accurate predictions of both terrestrial weather and the effects of space weather on Earth’s technological systems.

SWPC is also engaging with users and the general public to promote understanding. This includes the annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum (SWEF) held in Washington, D.C. The theme of this year’s forum posed a question that is on many minds: “Solar maximum — Can we weather the storm?”

“I honestly don’t know if there’s a yes or no answer,” said SWPC space scientist Joe Kunches. “But we increase the chances of ‘yes’ with good forecasts and warnings and emergency procedures in place … We are working hard here to ensure the greatest probability that we can withstand whatever the Sun doles out.”

Posted June 23, 2011 NOAA logo.