I apologize for the lack of science blogging around here, I’ve been busy with my science journalism class! I figured I can at least make up for that by putting my articles up here which you may find interesting. Here’s one I wrote after a field trip (how awesome are field trips?) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction center here in Boulder.

Space Weather – And You!

Coronal Mass Ejection - Boom! Source: NASA

On November 3rdmassive sunspots, some more than 17 times the size of the earth, spewed a dangerous combination of radiation, magnetic fields, and charged particles out into space. Luckily, this discharge from the Sun was not aimed towards Earth – this time.

These solar events, called Coronal Mass Ejections, or (CMEs), – can disrupt electronic, communication, and navigation systems that modern society relies upon. Luckily, scientists with The Space Weather Prediction Center monitor this ‘space weather’ to give us enough time to prepare. Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, the center focuses on monitoring the sun and predicting when major events like the November 3rd eruption will affect Earth.

“We dodged a bullet,” remarked Joe Kunches, a space scientist at the center. “There was a big coronal mass ejection but because it was on the edge of the sun it was no problem to us.”

When an eruption sends a CME past Earth it disrupts the planet’s magnetic field causing what are called geomagnetic storms. While the magnetic field protects us from potentially harmful health effects from the particles and radiation in a CME, the geomagnetic storm can severely disrupt – or even destroy in extreme cases – critical infrastructure such as the electric grid and the satellite network used for global communication and navigation.

In 1989 a geomagnetic storm melted transformers in New Jersey and brought down the power grid in northern Quebec, leaving six million people without power for nine hours. The largest solar eruption recorded occurred in 1859 and is referred to as the Carrington Super Flare. It produced a storm that was energetic enough to cause sparks to fly out of telegraph equipment and start fires. It was mostly a scientific curiosity back then. But a storm of that size today could cripple our electricity-dependent society, according to Kunches.

“It’s a little scary because there are so many dependencies on plain old electricity,” he says. Large electric transformers and communications satellites are not off-the-shelf items that can be easily and quickly replaced in the event that many are damaged simultaneously. “Think about what would happen if it went out for a month. Where would you get your food? What about people in the hospital?”

Aurora observed in WI from Oct 24th solar storms. Source: Spaceweather.com

The space weather center produces forecasts that go out to administrators of systems that are affected by geomagnetic storms, providing warning about any solar activity and allowing sufficient time to take necessary precautions. Kunches likens the job of space weather experts like himself to hurricane trackers as they try to predict the trajectory and severity of solar storms.

Unlike hurricanes however, space weather forecasters have no way of predicting exactly when an unstable sunspot – like the current sunspot group that produced the November 3rd CME – will erupt. Once a CME event occurs, the storm could reach Earth in as little as 24 hours giving forecasters a short amount of time to predict the path and severity.

Information in the forecasts relies heavily on observations from a handful of satellites. The ACE satellite sits roughly a million miles away from the Earth in the direction of the sun acting as a sentinel giving advance notice of CMEs heading our way. A pair of identical satellites, part of a system called STEREO, is positioned ahead of and behind the Earth in its orbit. This allows forecasters to monitor the entire surface of the sun for the formation of unstable sunspots which produce solar eruptions.

What about the current status of the large cluster of sunspots?

“It has been quiet,” Kunches says. “But now it’s located centrally on the sun so should we have an eruption from this particular group expect that we are going to get hit pretty hard.”


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