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Improving space weather forecasting techniques critical to our information age

Weekly astrophysical column from Ken Tapping at DRAO

On 10 March, 1989 there was a huge explosion on the Sun. It ejected a huge cloud of hot gas and magnetic fields out into space at a speed between 1,000 and 2,000 kilometres a second. This cloud - a coronal mass ejection - arrived at the Earth in the early hours of 13 March, causing a massive geomagnetic storm. The result was massive power outages, communications disruptions and many other problems. The total damage bill came in at over $2 billion. That’s why so much attention was paid to the recent solar flares. Unfortunately, it also helped fuel the “over the top” reports in the media.

It is certainly true that we are now more vulnerable to the Sun’s bad behaviour than we were in 1989. The day-to-day business of our lives depends more upon our ability to exchange information quickly and efficiently than ever before in history. Effective power management means our networks are more intimately connected and therefore vulnerable. You might be surprised to know that solar activity can damage pipelines too, by dramatically accelerating corrosion. Moreover, we are making more and more pipelines. Then of course there is high-altitude air travel, particularly on polar routes, where radiation levels are much higher during periods of elevated solar activity. A few years ago we had an excellent example of what happens when the Sun zaps a communication satellite or two. High-energy particles from the Sun disabled two Anik satellites, cutting off important communications and making many of our cable TV channels vanish.

However over the last couple of decades we have made huge progress in a positive direction. In 1989 the phrase “space weather” did not even exist. We had only a hazy idea of the intimately-connected processes that start on the Sun and end on the surface of the Earth. Thanks to new observations and our improving scientific understanding, we can do more to minimize the consequences of bad space weather than we could in 1989.

Understanding and forecasting space weather is particularly important to Canada. This country’s high magnetic latitude and large size makes us particularly sensitive to its effects. This vulnerability is driving ongoing Canadian initiatives in space weather. Our Solar Radio Flux monitors function as stethoscopes on the Sun’s pulse; satellites monitor conditions in space, and networks of sensors throughout Canada monitor the Earth’s magnetic field and nearby space environment. In collaboration, the National Research Council, Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Space Agency are developing new measuring tools, such as the Next Generation Solar Flux Monitor, under development here at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory and improved ground-based sensor networks. These should lead to more useful data and more effective forecasting system, to know better what is coming, and when.

The Sun will cross the equator heading North at 1:14 EDT on the 20th, and 22:14 PDT on the 19th, marking the spring equinox and the official beginning of spring. Venus and Jupiter lie in the west after sunset. Venus is the bright one. Mars is in the east, and Saturn rises about 10 p.m. The Moon will be New on the 22nd.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.