Why Do We Need a Space Weather Forecast?
Britain has announced it will be funding a 24/7 space weather forecast, but what will that entail and is it a good idea?
This year saw the sun reach the peak of its activity cycle, giving scientists around the world some dazzling insights into our neighborhood star. At the time, you might remember there were reports, some particularly wild, that implied the solar activity could end global communication as we know it by interfering with our electronics. Needless to say the reports missed some vital details, but there is a business-interest in making sure that we are monitoring solar events.
Now a £4.6 million ($7.5 million) investment by the UK’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills has kick-started a joint project with the Met Office to provide an early warning service for businesses and other networks that could be affected by severe space weather, such as magnetic storms that have the potential to damage satellites, radio communications and even knock out GPS and power systems. The money and technology is being re-purposed from other areas and so, at least in the short term, the project is not a financial burden. It most definitely is an interesting one though.
The project will see Britain gathering information from the handful of other joint projects currently monitoring space in this manner, including using data from the European Space Agency and NASA.
The forecasts will begin in spring of 2014 and will be operating at full capacity by the autumn. The money for the project will be divided between forecasting and collaborating with researchers to ensure that the data is being read properly.
Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office, is quoted as saying:
“Space weather is a relatively immature science but understanding is growing rapidly. The Met Office is working with NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre in the US in a collaboration which aims to enable both organisations to accelerate the development of improved space weather models and prediction systems to make more effective use of space weather data. This investment will enable the Met Office to complete the space weather forecasting capability that it has been developing over the past 2 years and begin delivering forecasts, warnings and alerts to key sectors to minimise the impact to the technology based services we all rely on.”
Interest in this kind of forecasting has been growing over the past few years as the world shifts to increasing reliance on communication technologies that can be affected by space weather.
There are many examples of potentially risky weather, such as Coronal Mass Ejection large plasma bubbles. This solar event can create serious geomagnetic storms that have the potential to disrupt our electricity grids. While the UK’s electricity grid is fairly robust, any damage is obviously a worry. Fortunately, these kinds of events are usually easy to predict and with the correct forecasts can be prepared for more than a month in advance.
One of the most famous CMEs is the so-called Carrington Event. The massive solar storm of 1859, named after astronomer Richard Carrington, resulted in auroras being seen across the globe. It was so bright that it is said to have lit up the night sky, so much so that it awoke gold miners in the United States and even provided enough light to read a newspaper.
At the time, the Carrington Event caused disruption to telegraphs and led to a few electrocutions but, with modern technology, analysts have predicted that a similar event would result in much more damage. In fact, Loyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research have used data from the Carrington Event to calculate just how potentially costly a similar event today might be. They believe it would be somewhere in the region of $2.6 trillion. What’s more, a worst case scenario could see unprepared power grids downed for weeks if not months.
While the chances of this happening over the next decade is relatively low, the event could technically happen at any time, and so employing a dedicated forecasting team to provide an early warning could be vital.
With this effort, Britain joins just a few other states in monitoring the solar weather in this way. As our reliance on technology increases, this kind of forward planning will become even more vital. That said, most scientists agree we should calm our fears and that while these kinds of solar storms need to be taken seriously, we’re not likely to be looking at an apocalyptic event that robs us of all modern communication technology anytime soon, especially with forward thinking projects like this.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.