Sunday, November 1, 2015

Understanding Extreme Space Weather

Space WeatherA severe solar storm could disrupt the nation’s power grid for months, potentially leading to widespread blackouts. Resulting damage and disruption for such an event could cost more than $1 trillion, with a full recovery time taking months to years, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

A newly issued National Space Weather Strategy identifies high-level priorities and goals for the Untied States, while an accompanying Action Plan outlines how federal agencies are expected to implement the strategy. The documents were released by the National Science and Technology Council.

While major geomagnetic storms are rare, with only a few recorded per century, there is significant potential for large-scale impacts when they do occur. In addition to impacting electric-power grids, space weather can interfere with radio communications, GPS systems, satellites and other modern infrastructure.

Space Weather

Space weather refers to variations in the space environment between the Sun and Earth (and throughout the solar system). In particular, space weather describes the phenomena – solar flares, solar energetic particles, and coronal mass ejections – that impact systems in orbit and on Earth.

The Sun is always emitting a wind of electrically charged particles, but when a large sunspot emerges on the face of the Sun, there is an increased chance for abrupt emission of strong solar wind. When this happens, a magnetic storm is the result. An intense magnetic storm can affect many technological systems. In particular, storms can overload and interfere with the operation electric-power grids on the Earth, sometimes causing blackouts.

Aurora_Borealis_and_Australis_PosterDuring magnetic storms aurora borealis — northern lights — are visible at high latitudes. While mostly harmless, this is an indication that potentially hazardous charged particles have been activated in our atmosphere. The lights occur as a result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the Sun. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding.

National Space Weather Strategy

In November 2014, the National Science and Technology Council established the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force, and its charter directed the development of a National Space Weather Strategy. This was a multi-agency effort, engaging those who are part of the National Space Weather Program (which coordinates the work of the federal agencies).

The United States Geological Survey’s Geomagnetism Program monitors and studies the Earth’s magnetic field through a network of 14 ground-based observatories. The USGS observatory data are used to calculate magnetic storm intensity. As part of the National Space Weather Strategy, the USGS is expected to develop new benchmarks, expand long-term ground-based monitoring, conduct a U.S. magnetotelluric survey, and more.

USGS observatory data are used by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force Weather Agency for issuing geomagnetic warnings and forecasts. Internationally, the USGS magnetic observatory network is of the global INTERMAGNET network.

Illustration provided by USGS; photos of the aurora australis and aurora borealis from around the world, including those with rarer red and blue lights, courtesy Wikimedia user 14jbella.

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