Anyone who has spent time in Michigan knows how difficult accurate weather forecasting can be — and that’s just here on Earth. Imagine having to predict conditions across the entire chasm of space that lies between the Earth and the sun. Yet that daunting task is exactly what Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science prof. Robert Clauer, and researchers like him, are hoping to do.

Beth Dykstra
Ultra-hot helium erupts from the sun as a solar flare. (COURTESY OF NASA/SOHO)
Beth Dykstra
A coronal mass ejection from the sun. (COURTESY OF NASA/SOHO)

Clauer, co-director of the Center for Space Environment Modeling at the University’s Space Physics Research Lab, hopes to one day develop models that will be comparable in accuracy to terrestrial meteorology.

While the distance between the sun and earth spans for millions of miles, the effects of the explosive weather on the star can extend even to our planet by disrupting satellites and electrical equipment on the ground.

Clauer said, as of now, the field of space weather is still lagging behind current weather forecasting on the earth in terms of accuracy. “We’re kind of where the meteorologists were 20 years ago,” he said.

Despite the gap between technologies, Clauer added that, “The weather models have become accurate, in part, because they have a lot of data to put into those models. We don’t think it’s going to take 20 years because we’re building on their experience and their work, although we have some new problems to overcome.”

The problem, according to Clauer, lies in the physical size of the area that researchers are trying to model, the sparse data on solar activity and the fact that matter between the Earth and the Sun is distributed very unevenly, with some areas having much denser distributions than others.

“We probably are never going to have (a high) level of data,” Clauer said. “We’re trying to develop data assimilation methods that will work with the sparse data we have.”

But Clauer said their research utilizes the most advanced computer models that are specifically geared toward predicting the weather on the sun. Adaptive mesh refinement, a computing technique that allows multiple computers to work simultaneously with rapidly changing areas of space that are both empty and dense, is one such model, Clauer explained.

To understand those different areas in space, one must look to the activity of the sun.

“Space weather is basically looking at how the sun and activity on the sun actually affects conditions around the Earth,” said Susan Lepri, a research fellow in the AOSS Department. “The sun has a continuous solar wind that’s always blowing charged particles in into space.”

Solar wind is a continuous stream of charged particles originating from the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. In addition to the solar wind, which carries with it a magnetic field, the super-hot atmosphere of the Sun often erupts in what are known as solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

According to Lepri the solar flares release primarily X-ray radiation, which can harm astronauts in space, but they also release relatively small amounts of charged particles.

Coronal mass ejections, on the other hand, can release tens of billions of tons of charged particles into space.

The real damage to the Earth, Lepri and Clauer said, comes from those charged particles, known as plasma, and their interactions with everything from satellites to power grids.

“The electrical currents have consequences — spacecrafts can get charged and have arcing between their components.”

“Both commercial and military communications satellites can be affected,” Clauer added. The electric field induced by changing current, he said, can wreak havoc even if it is very small, if it’s conducted across large systems such as pipelines or power grids. This current can even blow up power transformers, causing blackouts.

One of the largest blackouts in history, which affected nearly six million people in Quebec in 1989, was attributed to a solar storm.

The most recent storm, caused by a coronal mass ejection, occurred on Jan. 20, causing a brilliant aurora in Europe but had otherwise no effect on the earth. Nevertheless, power companies are particularly interested in when the next solar storm may occur.

“If (power companies) know there is something coming,” Clauer explained, “they can cut back or they can re-route power into smaller segments. But it costs money. So you have to be able to make a prediction that’s reliable. We’re not really there yet.”

 

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