Why space weather is important
Opened in 2014, the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre is still only one of three global centres manned 24/7 by expert space weather forecasters.
The Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) was officially opened on 8 October 2014 by the then Science Minister Greg Clarke. Three years on, it remains one of only three centres manned 24/7 by expert space weather forecasters. The other two are both in the US (NOAA Space weather Prediction Centre and US Air Force 557th Weather Wing).
The threat of space weather to national infrastructure, UK industry and the wider public prompted the Government to add it to the National Risk Register (NRR) of Civil Emergencies in 2011 and forecaster training began. MOSWOC began 24/7 operations slightly earlier, in April of 2014, becoming the UK operational space weather prediction centre tasked with helping protect the country from the threats posed by space weather.
Head of Space weather, Mark Gibbs, who has led the team since 2011, explains why the UK needs this prediction centre: “The Sun is in constant flux and the impact of solar activity is more apparent as people become more reliant on technology. It can have an impact on national infrastructure, technology and communications systems.”
Animation showing more about the dynamic sun – the source of space weather events.
Understanding space weather
Solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar wind affect technology and systems such as satellites, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), also known as GPS, power grids and radio communications.
Solar flares can cause high-frequency radio and GNSS to perform erratically, extreme CMEs can put power grids at risk. Therefore, space weather forecasts are of crucial importance to the electricity industry, satellite operators, aviation industry and the military.
Short video outlining what space weather is and how it affects us on Earth.
The first two weeks of September represented a test of MOSWOC’s capabilities, with the occurrence of the largest space weather event for over a decade. A rapidly developing and magnetically complex sunspot – known as AR2673 – produced the two largest solar flares of the current 11 year solar cycle and a number of earth-bound CMEs. The event was sufficiently large to result in reports of minor impacts such as at least one power grid transformer tripping out in Scandinavia. According to Mark, the MOSWOC team did an excellent job predicting and tracking activity and provided accurate advice to a number of users, stakeholders including UK Government, Swedish Government and the European Space Agency.
Predicting the aurora
The most recognisable and visible space weather effect is the auroras (Northern and Southern Lights). MOSWOC has just implemented an aurora prediction model (called OVATION) providing 30 minute ahead forecasts of the position and intensity of the aurora. It is available to the public via the website.
OVATION indicates clearly the location and probability of aurora being visible. Mark explains: “What OVATION shows is the probability of visible aurora, assuming the sky is clear and, of course, other factors such as viewing location also come into play.”
Video: Met Office explains the Northern Lights and OVATION