Product of Canada

Weekly column from Ken Tapping

Space weather, climate change and disruption of our technology are among the major concerns facing us today. We know the Sun drives these things, but we need to better understand how.  Issues like these are too big for any single country to address. They require many different types of observations, some made in space and others made on the ground. Moreover the solutions will involve all of us. That is why we collaborate internationally, sharing our ideas and information. We make our contributions and have access to the whole pool of data, collected by everyone.

Even in these days of video conferencing and easy communications, face-to-face meetings at conferences and workshops are critically important. In addition, there is no substitute for casual (and not so casual) discussions outside the meeting rooms and over meals. It is there that some of the best ideas and initiatives are born

I have just returned from two fascinating and thought-provoking workshops. Issues we discussed at the first meeting included the role of the Sun in climate change and unusual weather, including how it might trigger El Nino and La Nina events, which can cause dramatic and sometimes disastrous changes in weather patterns. Then there are the solar-induced changes in the ionosphere and upper atmosphere, disrupting communications and threatening space missions. Next, but by no means last, there are sun-caused magnetic storms, which produce power outages, further communications disruptions and accelerated corrosion of pipelines.

When we try to relate events on the Sun with possible consequences on Earth, we need to describe the Sun’s behaviour in a simple way, preferably as a simple ìindex of activityî that can be used by researchers, industries and government agencies. This is not an easy thing to do because the Sun is not simple. This was the subject of the second workshop.

What is arguably the best single measure of solar activity is a product of Canada.  Ever since 1947 the National Research Council has used two specialized radio telescopes for monitoring solar activity, distributing to a worldwide community of users  a quantity known internationally as the 10.7cm solar radio flux, or more concisely, F10.7. In recent years this programme has become increasingly relevant to Canadian interests in geophysics, space research and the exploration of space, which led to it becoming a collaborative project between the National Research Council, Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Space Agency. F10.7 is measured here at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, south of Penticton, British Columbia.

The importance of our F10.7 data was very apparent at the two meetings. At the first, 70 per cent of the presentations, given by scientists from all over the world, depended upon it. Then, to cap it all, the meeting ended with a unanimous vote of appreciation for our F10.7 data. In the second meeting, F10.7 cropped up in almost every other sentence. The F10.7 values have been flowing out to the world every day for more than 60 years, and continue to be valuable. We have every reason to be proud of this unique “Product of Canada”.

Jupiter rises around 8 p.m.; Mars comes up around 2 a.m. The Moon will be full on the 11th.

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