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Space weather

Satellite image of a Coronal Mass Ejection blasting off the Sun's surface (left portion), and subsequent impact on Earth.

Developing a space weather forecasting system at the Met Office.

Space weather events encompass conditions on the Sun, the solar wind, the magnetosphere, the ionosphere, and the neutral atmosphere, and have both eruptive and quiescent aspects. The eruptive component consists of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and solar energetic particles. The quiescent component includes the increase in solar luminescence with the sunspot cycle and the elevated flux of galactic cosmic rays, which is anti-correlated with the sunspot cycle.

Space weather influences the technology that we rely on. As technology increases so does our vulnerability to space weather effects. Any communications signal that bounces off, or travels through, the ionosphere is affected by space weather.  Any space-based instrument is also at risk from space weather, due to direct damage from the solar wind or from communications and control malfunction. More specifically, the eruptive events cause ionospheric storms, which disrupt GPS/GNSS and HF communications, magnetic storms which induce damaging currents in power lines and which can weaken pipelines, and radiation storms that affect avionics and the health and safety of passengers and aircrews. The elevated flux of galactic cosmic rays cause heightened radiation for satellites, manned spaceflight and trans-polar aviation.

Accordingly, analysis and prediction of space weather conditions can help to reduce, or avoid, the impact of space weather on our lives. The Met Office is well placed to provide space weather forecasts because of its experience in providing operational weather forecasts, its modelling and data assimilation skills (where transferable to the space weather problem), and its experience in modelling the middle atmosphere, which is adjacent to the ionosphere and thermosphere, where space weather storms impact the inner atmosphere. Thus developing a space weather forecast system is a growing area for the Met Office.

Key Aims

  • To produce near real-time space weather nowcasts and short-range forecasts by developing existing empirical analysis and modelling techniques.

  • To perform research with more sophisticated physical space weather models to assess performance, and identify and reduce model errors.

  • To build an upgraded space weather forecast system based on more sophisticated models and assimilation techniques.

Current Projects

  • Physical modelling of space weather events: In collaboration with University College London, the Met Office is examining model forecasts of space weather events and comparing these with observations to characterise model performance. This approach is a very effective way of pinpointing sources of model error, and it is possible to use this information to improve the parts of the model responsible for such errors.

  • Development of a demonstration space weather forecast system: In collaboration with Bath University, the Met Office is developing a system for the near real-time processing of space weather observations, the analysis of these observations and the production of short-range forecasts using an empirical model.

  • Development of more sophisticated space weather forecasts: The work from the above two projects shall be merged to produce an improved space weather forecast system, in which the simplified analysis and modelling used in the demonstrator system is replaced by physical model forecasts and an improved data assimilation method which shall be similar to techniques used in weather forecasting.

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