Space Weather: Why You Need To Know The Forecast
Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
by AJ Plunkett
Some days, if not most, you probably start the day by checking the weather forecast. Maybe you need to take an umbrella to go shopping. Maybe you want to see what to pack for that critical business trip overseas. Maybe you’re hoping for a massive snowstorm because that school project isn’t done. Yet.
But some day in the future — and probably the near future — you are also going to want to check what the weather will be like in space.
And here’s why: The weather in space could have a dramatic impact on whether you get to use your credit card that day. Or whether your business flight actually gets to where it’s going. Or whether you have electricity when stuck at home during a snowstorm.
Space Weather: What You Need To Know
Space weather isn’t just for space and weather geeks anymore (although both will certainly take some interest in Deadliest Space Weather, a new cable television offering on The Weather Channel that debuted on Jan. 10).
Long an intense interest of scientists, satellite providers, and spacewalking astronauts (space radiation sunburns are never pretty), the ever-changing climate in space promises to have increased impact on the ground as technology becomes more sophisticated and more intrinsic to the everyday Earthling.
The more sophisticated the technology, the more susceptible it will be to various solar eruptions, cosmic rays, geomagnetic storms, meteoroids and even space debris, according to the European Space Agency, NASA, and other agencies that are devoting more and more resources to forecasting weather in space.
Most people on Earth have probably been impacted by space weather in some form already. Ever wonder why your GPS unit works one day and not the next? How about bad cell reception? A solar eruption may have been shaking up the ionosphere.
Got The Power
Not worried about a geomagnetic storm? Well, it has the power to collapse an electrical power grid. (Anyone in Montreal, Quebec, on March 13, 1989, might remember being without power for about nine hours after a huge geomagnetic storm took out commercial power.)
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, quoting a 2009 National Academies of Science report, a space weather-induced power grid collapse could cost in the range of $1 trillion.
Commercial airliners, especially those flying over poles, have had communication and navigation problems during periods of high solar radiation as well as during geomagnetic storms. The cost of rerouting those airliners can reach $100,000 per flight, the NOAA says.
And perhaps one of the most dangerous impacts is on the Earth’s $100 billion-plus network of satellites. Not only can space weather interrupt phone conversations and jumble directions, it can lead to significant damage to orbiting spacecraft that provide critical information to the military, financial markets, world communications, and, yes, also to the forecasters of weather within our atmosphere.
Then there’s always the possibility that a damaged satellite could crash into another spacecraft, which can create more space debris. Which in turn can collide with other satellites with a rush of a solar wind or electromagnetic field.
Just like weather on Earth, understanding space weather and developing better ways to forecast it isn’t going to stop any of these things from happening. But it can help people on Earth — and those in space, like spacewalking astronauts onboard the International Space Station — to plan for communication problems and dangerous radiation.
So when you get up tomorrow, check out the forecast — here, and out there. Here’s the link to the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
Lights Of Levity
By the way, not all space weather is cause for concern. Some of it is, well, beautiful.
For instance: When the sun ejects mass, which then throws off energy and messes with the Earth’s magnetic field, it can produce electric currents in the upper atmosphere.
That would be the Aurora Borealis.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com