Thursday, April 11, 2024

Space Weather

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Solar System, Earth & Space Science, Astrophysics, Science & Society, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Job/Organizational Title: Space Weather Forecaster

What do they do?  How is that different from what their earth-oriented colleagues do in their weather forecasts.? Why do organizations hire them?

These are among the questions that Kathryn Schulz discusses in an 8-page essay (one of those pages is an illustration) in the March 4, 2024 The New Yorker.

The job title is real and "is shared by not more than a few dozen Americans." Schulz makes great use of the career of two of them, Ken Tegnell, as an organizer for the essay and a)," Ken Tegnell and Bill Murtagh. If you belong to LinkedEd you can read his full profile.

I hope I'm not alone in never thinking that there is weather in space. Planetary weather I know a little bit about. The space weather Schulz focuses on is one "that had no appreciable effect whatsoever on human activity," until "certain technologies --electricity, telecommunications are two --became "central  to our lives." 

There are significant "potential consequences." "The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) concluded, writes Schulz: there are "only two natural hazards that "have the capacity to simultaneously affect the entire nation. One is a pandemic. The other is a severe, solar storm, the subject of her reporting.

I was interested to learn that in 1859, the date of the publication of Charles Darwin's monumental On The Origin of Species and the coincidence with the first troublesome solar storm to strike the planet planet. British astronomer, "Richard Carrington happened to be outside, another coincidence, sketching a group of sunspots when he saw a burst of light, on the surface of the sun: the first known observation of a solar flare." It became known as the Carrington Event.

Schulz then describes two such events following: and their effects which eventually led to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess "the nation's capacity to endure the terrestrial effects." Later, the "White House came knocking to ask if it should be concerned about the N.A.S. report." Because he was familiar with the ideas of space weather and earth weather, FEMA director "Craig Fugate was in a position to offer an emphatic yes."

Schulz reviews differences between interstellar weather and planetary weather. There are two concepts we need to know about interstellar weather: solar flares and coronal mass ejections. She reminds us of the importance of the Earth's magnetic field and life. The sun has a magnetic field which is not as "tidy" because the sun's results from its composition. It is known as the fourth state of matter.

It results in a messy rotation of the sun. The solar-magnetic field lines "twist and criss-cross" leading to sunspots. These are what Ken Tegnell watches. A storm may come. Coronal mass ejections are enormous and can "mark the beginning of a major solar storm."

Schulz describes her visit to the forecasting room of Space Weather Prediction Center where Tegnell interprets, looks for the unusual and reports watches and warnings twice daily. She also discusses prediction. You may recall that the sunspot cycle is eleven-years from solar-minimum to solar maximum. We are nearing the peak (2025) but powerful solar storms do not necessarily follow.

Tegnell's colleague Bill Murtagh's job is on minimizing effects. Many organizations and individuals are interested and Schulz tells us why.

Schulz describes solar storms, their two phases, the special case of astronauts who may be in their path, the peril to the 8000 satellites in space on which we depend and take for granted. Many processes on Earth require "ultra-sharp positioning data"and "temporal information." These are what make possible for all the parts of an advanced technological system to operate. Murtagh thinks none of them are ready for a major space weather event.

Coronal flares are like cannonballs, "slower but more destructive" than solar flares - taking from 15 hours to several days to reach the planet. They can result in a geomagnetic storm. One of the most feared effects is on the power grid, what we know as a blackout. Earth's geological structure can offer some protection but it is not even around the planet." The electricity from an ejection and that found in the grid and when the two collide the damage is cascading. Schulz discusses some of the economic concerns.

We have no experience with storms before the power grid and space weather experts are troubled about what will happen the next time a Carrington Events strikes. Schulz quotes Daniel Baker who said --I should let you read this for your self - but hope this is an incentive to read Schulz's standard high level of reporting. '"On our power system.  I do not want to be unduly alarmist. But I do want to be duly alarmist'."

Schulz closes with some of the problems we face in updating the grid, the likelihood of cascading malfunctions, the possibility that one  malfunction could bring the whole thing down, the study of "attribution---"determining whether a given anomaly was caused by bad weather in space rather than by a technical malfunction or deliberate interference." Currently, both the Army and Navy have returned to teaching some ol practices. Some of this has been figured out and might include a return to old practices.

Solar storms are sometimes called "low frequency, high-consequence events. Murtagh, Schulz reports looks at people who tell him "I've never seen a problem''  and says "'I don't know what to say to you. The Carrington Event happened one second ago. And it will happen again."'   

There is a lot of science yet to be learned about the sun and effects here on Earth. The question, as always, is about the infrastructure to reckon with them.  

"What a Major Storm Could Do to our Planet" is the source of these notes and clumsy extractions. It is the one you should read for the full story. If you have not exceeded your free site use - two times and out -- you can read it. It is well worth looking for and reading. It can be found on the web in various places, all of which so far require a subscription - one was a temporary use which required signing in. Worth searching for, including your local library for a print copy.   

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