Space weather

Forecasting space weather

28 March 2012

The Met Office is most commonly associated with producing terrestrial weather forecasts. But recently we have been looking further afield, way beyond our atmosphere. The goal is to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service that will monitor the way the Sun's matter and energy changes and predict how these changes are likely to affect the Earth's environment.

The Met Office is most commonly associated with producing terrestrial weather forecasts. But recently we have been looking further afield, way beyond our atmosphere. The goal is to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service that will monitor the way the Sun's matter and energy changes and predict how these changes are likely to affect the Earth's environment.

Helping make this a reality is Mark Gibbs who is in charge of the Met Office's space weather strategy and development.

"The goal is to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service that will monitor the way the Sun's matter and energy changes and predict how these changes are likely to affect the Earth's environment."

"Mostly we see the Sun as never-changing," says Mark, "but in reality it's like any dynamic system. Constantly shifting and changing the energy and matter it emits. And that can have profound influences on the Earth and its inhabitants."

The impact of space weather

Solar events have been happening for millions of years, but their effect has been more apparent as people have become more reliant on technology. Solar flares and the solar wind affect our technology and systems such as satellites, GPS, power grids and radio communications. Today, the impact - and potential risk to humans - is greater than ever before.

"Coronal Mass Ejections, large eruptions of plasma from the Sun which travel across space at high speed, can cause geomagnetic storms and send currents through power lines if they track towards and reach the Earth. These can then damage transformers and entire power grids," says Mark.

While this might sound like science fiction, it is a very real occurrence that can cause widespread issues. In fact, in Quebec, Canada, on 13 March 1989, fluctuations caused by a geomagnetic storm plunged six million people into darkness when the power grid failed. But the potential impact on power grids depends on many factors.

As Mark adds, "In the UK we're probably better prepared than most nations. The engineering design of our network makes it quite resilient to this sort of geomagnetic storms and the geology and geography of the UK helps us as well. We are collaborating with the British Geological Survey who are the experts in the UK on how these geomagnetic storms interact with the natural environment in the UK to produce these currents."

However, the affects of solar activity aren't limited to power failure. Solar flares can cause disturbances in the ionosphere, part of our atmosphere - the area that high-frequency radio communications bounce off before returning to Earth. This can cause high-frequency radio and GPS to perform erratically. For most people driving along in their car, incorrect directions wouldn't cause too much upset. But for high-precision users such as the military, being tens of metres out could cause critical problems. It's for these reasons that space weather forecasts are very important to a wide range of organisations including the Armed Forces, electricity industry, satellite operators and the aviation industry.

The Met Office-NOAA partnership

NOAA logo Since February 2011 the Met Office and NOAA have been working together very closely. "We're collaborating to improve forecasting techniques and develop services that users need," says Mark. This has seen Met Office forecasters getting on-the-job space weather forecasting training at NOAA's centre in Boulder, Colorado - benefiting from the experience the US has in this field.

But NOAA will also benefit from the Met Office's expertise. "We bring a lot of skills from terrestrial weather forecasting that we can take into space weather forecasting," says Mark. For instance, Mark and his team are sharing their extensive knowledge of ensemble modelling - a technique used to understand uncertainty - and data assimilation, which helps forecasters analyse information. Both of these techniques aren't currently being used by NOAA in space weather forecasting. As Mark says, "It's a two-way relationship - and we're making good progress."

The Met Office and NOAA are also joining forces in their attempt to create the world's first combined space / terrestrial weather model to help improve space weather forecasts. The ultimate aim is to take all the various models used for space and weather forecasting, and bringing them together - which is no small task. The main challenge is the number of different models currently used. Firstly, there are models of the Sun plus geospace models that look at the area between the Sun and the Earth's environment. Then there are models of the different parts of the Earth's atmosphere.

As Mark explains, "What we're trying to do is pull all these together into a seamless line. So from the Sun you pass from one model tier into another, all the way to the surface of the Earth. It's a grand challenge."

Delivering space weather forecasts in the UK

When it comes to delivering space weather forecasts in the UK, one of the main hurdles the Met Office faces is a lack of awareness. But Mark and his team are meeting with people from different industry sectors to make them aware of their potential vulnerability or - if they're already aware of it - find out how the Met Office can help them mitigate the risks.

If all goes to plan, by later this spring there will always be a trained space weather forecaster on duty at the Met Office's normal forecasting centre. And with the Sun about to reach its solar maximum in 2013 - the period of greatest solar activity in the Sun's cycle - the Met Office capability will be well placed to help UK industries prepare and deal with any possible effects.

Met Office partnership with the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC)

In developing a UK-based space weather forecasting service the Met Office has become a member and partner of ISIC. ISIC's aim is to support and facilitate innovation in the space sector.

For the Met Office, becoming a member and partner brings great benefits. "It gives us immediate access to a community of users and industries that are specifically focused on space," says Mark Gibbs, who is heading up the Met Office's space weather forecasting programme.

What's more, as designated space weather prediction experts to ISIC, this access will allow Mark and his team to better understand the needs of industries impacted by space weather - and help the Met Office tailor its alert service to meet members' requirements.

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