Earth’s magnetic field, the so-called magnetosphere, protects us against highly energetic particles from the Sun that could harm us by smashing into DNA molecules and disrupting the chemistry of life. Space weather in the uppermost reaches of our atmosphere (the ‘ionosphere’) can be just as significant as the weather we experience on the ground. Solar storms and violent surges in the stream of solar particles (the solar wind) can knock out expensive space satellites, distort GPS navigation signals, and even black out our electricity supplies.
These days so many important aspects of our lives depend on sensitive technologies. The continued health of things like communications satellites and power generation stations is vital for maintaining our way of life. Space weather can change that in an instant by causing satellites to fall silent and power blackouts that leave millions of people in the dark. Forecasting and planning for space weather events is the only way we have to protect ourselves. In March 1989 the restless Sun hurled a massive pulse of charged particles in our direction, and the world witnessed a spectacular ‘Northern Lights’ (‘Aurora Borealis’) display which could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. Suddenly, the entire electricity output from Hydro-Quebec's La Grande Hydroelectric Complex went haywire, and Quebec’s power grid collapsed. Six million people were left without heat and light on a cold winter’s night. People were trapped in darkened buildings and elevators, and all the traffic lights stopped working.
Space weather is very complex and there are all sorts of processes involved: from the Sun’s ever changing magnetic field, to flares and coronal mass ejections, changes in the makeup of the solar wind, and the state of Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere. Because there is still so much to learn, our ability to forecast space weather is comparable to our ability to forecast meteorological conditions about 50 years ago!
- Spaceship Earth is an 11-station network of neutron monitors strategically located to provide precise, real-time, 3-dimensional measurements of the cosmic ray angular distribution. Participating institutions include the University of Delaware, IZMIRAN (Moscow Region, Russia), Polar Geophysical Institute (Apatity, Russia), Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics (Russia), Institute of Cosmophysical Research and Aeronomy (Russia), Institute of Cosmophysical Research and Radio Wave Propagation (Russia), Australian Antarctic Division (Hobart), and the University of Tasmania (Hobart).
For additional information on Spaceship Earth, neutron monitors, and space weather, please visit the home page of the Bartol Research Institute Neutron Monitor Program.
T. Kuwabara, J. W. Bieber, J. Clem, P. Evenson, R. Pyle, K. Munakata, S. Yasue, C. Kato, S. Akahane, M. Koyama, Z. Fujii, M. L. Duldig, J. E. Humble, M. R. Silva, N. B. Trivedi, W. D. Gonzalez, and N. J. Schuch, Real-time cosmic ray monitoring system for space weather, Space Weather 4, S08001 (2006).