Correction: You, Not the Birds, Are the First Line of Defense for Space Weather

If you’re here in Austin, along with a few thousand of your closest professional colleagues, you’re not just here to share what you know. You’re here to learn what you need to know for the next great opportunity. Chances are, that opportunity is not at all where you were looking for it just a few years ago. It’s going to take a correction of professional course, and the AMS Annual Meeting is the place to start making that correction.
The next great thing in atmospheric science may be working closer with your colleagues who study the biology and chemistry of air-sea exchanges. It might mean getting to know how to deal with social science. It might mean looking above the clouds and not below, or taking input from different scales of time and space and applying them to your own, or thinking about renewable energy, not just potential and kinetic energy.
If you’re ready to take a hint from community leaders like NWS Acting Director Laura Furgione, UCAR President Tom Bogdan, and others, let alone the National Research Council, it’s time to start learning about the opportunities from outer space, too. In fact it is barely too soon to do so: our economic infrastructure is already completely wrapped up in technology that is highly dependent on the good graces of the sun. One little blip of activity for our massive sun, like a Coronal Mass Ejection, can wreak billions of dollars worth of havoc–and temporary infrastructure paralysis–on our little planet Earth. Space weather is not just one of those next great things in research and forecasting, it’s already crucial.
Yet research shows that right now, the birds likely know more about space weather than the average weather forecaster. That’s right: according to recent laboratory findings, birds have an innate ability, probably due to the chemistry and mechanics of their ears, that enables them to follow Earth’s geomagnetic fields on their long annual migrations. Birds use space weather to find their way. They can hear geomagnetic fields, we can’t.
A number of your colleagues will be correcting that right here in Austin. Some will attend the 10th Conference on Space Weather. (Yes, the 10th! Where have you been? In that time, not only has smartphone usage exploded, but the number of flight operations over the poles has increased by 28-fold–an amazing testament to rapid growth of vulnerability to Space Weather.) The good news for those looking for an opportunity to start making the correction now is that Sunday has two half-day short-course sessions on Space Weather. Students wondering what’s next after their conference ends at noon might be encouraged to know that the afternoon session includes interactive discussion with a blue ribbon space weather panel–and that students are eligible for reduced rate registration!
According to the short course description, “meteorologists are frequently the “first line of defense” for the public.” Clearly this is no job for birds. Time to make that correction, take that opportunity.

Solar Storms Are Noisy

A doctoral student at the University of Michigan has created a sonic representation of the intense solar storm that erupted in early March. Robert Alexander gathered 90 hours of raw data from two NASA spacecraft–the MESSENGER and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Through isomorphic mapping, he applied that data to an audio waveform. The resulting sound lasted only a fraction of a second, so Alexander used algorithms to extend the playback length. The final soundtrack portrays a cacophony of  solar particles emitted by the storm as they slammed into the spacecraft. Listen for yourself in the clip below.

You've Got a Flare for Science

Last night while you were out partying on Bourbon Street, the Sun was at work. According to NOAA, our home star produced an R2 (Moderate) radio blackout x-ray burst–call it a flare–accompanied by potentially the fastest Earth-directed Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) of the current solar cycle.
The flare was observed at 11 p.m. EST and radiation reached us an hour later. As of 6 a.m. local New Orleans time, radiation was already considered “strong” (S3). Initial model guidance showed the CME arriving around 9:00 am EST on Tuesday. NOAA space weather forecasters say this will cause the strongest solar radiation storm since December 2006, with potential for electrical grid disruption.
What impacts should you expect? (Hopefully, no more wireless outages in the Convention Center here in New Orleans!)
Seriously though, the best thing to do for your edification is to get over to the Space Weather Symposium this afternoon at the AMS Annual Meeting. Today’s session (4 p.m.-5:45 p.m., Room 252/3 include talks on impacts of space weather on aviation, networking, navigation, electricity transmission and more. And given our focus on futurism, consider this space weather question raised by presenter Karen Shelton-Mur (of the FAA):

Once low-Earth orbit (LEO) capabilities are demonstrated by commercial companies, it is anticipated that LEO flights will be expanded to include space flight participants (private citizens). The expansion of commercial space activities into LEO will expose more humans to the harsh space environment than ever before. Without proper authority and monitoring of on-orbit activities, how will the FAA ensure safety of the crew, its space flight participants, and safety critical systems on board the spacecraft?

No question, this stuff is “out there” and cool and very sophisticated application of the forward edges of atmospheric science. Today’s solar flare is a reminder that the way we use technology is pushing this community in new directions all the time.

UCAR's Next President, Thomas Bogdan

Thomas Bogdan. NOAA photo

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) announced today that Thomas Bogdan will succeed Richard Anthes as its next president, beginning in January 2012.
Bogdan has been director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado, since 2006. A Fellow of the AMS and current member of our Council, Bogdan moved to NOAA after a long stint at UCAR’s National Center for Atmospheric Research, beginning as a post-doc, moving up through the Scientist  and administrative ranks, and eventually serving as Acting Director of NCAR’s Advanced Studies Program. From 2001-2003 Bogdan was Program Director for the National Science Foundation’s Solar-Terrestrial Research Section. He received his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago in 1984.
You can hear a recent interview with Bogdan about space weather on Colorado Public Radio.

Or watch his presentation about space weather from 2007 at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference:

Looking at the Sun in a New Light

With orbiting observatories and solar probes now available to scientists, it might seem that studying the Sun (and its effects on weather and climate) has largely shifted to space-based technology. But in fact, ground-based monitoring of the Sun provides significant opportunities that aren’t possible from space. And the future of looking at the Sun from Earth is primed to become brighter with the recent announcement that the National Solar Observatory (NSO) will be moving to the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The NSO currently operates in two locations: Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and Sacramento Peak Observatory in Arizona. The consolidation of these two locations and the move to Colorado will be a multiyear process, with the actual physical relocation to begin around 2016.
The move will include the deactivation of older telescopes–some of which date to the 1950s–and will coincide with the construction of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), which when completed will be the largest optical solar telescope in the world. The ATST will be located in Hawaii, but the new NSO in Boulder will be the ATST’s science, instrument development, and data analysis center.
The dual projects should result in major advancements for solar exploration from the ground. The ATST will provide “unprecedented resolution and accuracy in studying the finescale magnetic field and solar activity that controls what happens in the solar atmosphere and beyond,” according to the NSO’s Stephen Keil.
Jeff Kuhn of the University of Hawaii explains how the ATST will be valuable in studying the Sun’s magnetic field, which drives much of the sun’s activity:

Most of the changes that happen on the Sun are caused by changes in magnetic fields,  and the ATST is a very specialized instrument that allows us to see those changes, and in fact has a sensitivity to measure changes in the magnetic field at the same kind of magnetic field strength as the . . . magnetic field that exists on the Earth that makes your compass needle work.

The high-resolution images needed to study the Sun’s magnetic field require very large telescopes that are too expensive to send into space. With the development of adaptive optics technology, ground-based observations are now much sharper than in the past, allowing for the study of “extremely small, violently active magnetic fields that control the temperature of the corona, and the solar wind, that produce flares [and] x-ray emission,” according to Eugene Parker of the University of Chicago.
Additionally, ground-based observatories have the capability of not just creating images, but also of making movies that track solar changes on time scales of minutes or even seconds.
The NSO has created a video (available on this page) that explains more about the atmospheric effects of solar activity and other advantages of ground-based solar research.

Here Comes the Sun–All 360 Degrees

The understanding and forecasting of space weather could take great steps forward with the help of NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission, which recently captured the first-ever images taken simultaneously from opposite sides of the sun. NASA launched two STEREO probes in October of 2006, and on February 6 they finally reached their positions 180 degrees apart from each other, where they could each photograph half of the sun. The STEREO probes are tuned to wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation that will allow them to monitor such solar activity as sunspots, flares, tsunamis, and magnetic filaments, and the probes’ positioning means that this activity will never be hidden, so storms originating from the far side of the sun will no longer be a surprise. The 360-degree views will also facilitate the study of other solar phenomenon, such as the possibility that solar eruptions on opposite sides of the sun can gain intensity by feeding off each other. The NASA clip below includes video of the historic 360-degree view.

A Minimum of Maximum Concern

There are a lot of questions about the current solar minimum, which has reached historic levels—“No solar physicist alive today has experienced a minimum this deep or this long,’’ according to NASA’s Madhulika Guhathakurta, lead program scientist for NASA’s Living With A Star program, which studies solar variability and its effects on Earth. Some of the effects of the minimum are fairly clear to scientists: the amount of cosmic rays entering our portion of the solar system is greater than normal, and Earth’s ionosphere has shrunk.

The solar minimum at an extreme: a spotless sun on July 1, 2008.

The debate is instead partly about the effect of the minimum on Earth’s climate. A recent study by Judith Lean of the Naval Research Lab and David Rind of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggests that decreased solar irradiance during the current minimum cycle may be slightly offsetting recent warming attributed to greenhouse gases. Even if the minimum is affecting climate, it may be of minimal consequence.
“. . . [O]nly about 10 percent of climate variation is due to the sun,” notes Leon Golub, senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics. “That means 90 percent isn’t.”
Just as importantly, the solar minimum won’t last forever, so any climatic effects are temporary, as well. But when will solar activity turn around? The current minimum began in 2000 and has been particularly deep for the last two years. At the AMS Annual Meeting, Joseph Kunches of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center attempts to pinpoint the arrival of the next solar maximum and ponders its potential effects in his presentation, “Solar Cycle Update—Will the New Cycle Please Start?” (Monday, 2:15–2:30 p.m., B303). And Matthew J. Niznik and W. F. Denig of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service introduce a new indicator, the Genesis Minimum Quiet Day Index, which analyzes sunspot activity and suggests that the current solar minimum is not anomalous. Their index and the larger topic of the influence of solar activity on Earth’s climate are explored in their poster, “Impacts of Extended Periods of Low Solar Activity on Climate” (Monday, 2:30–4:00 p.m., exhibit hall B2).

Exposing Air Travel Radiation Concerns

The Space Weather Symposium at the AMS Annual Meeting once again will discuss the radiation exposure that airplane passengers get from outer space. This year the presentations in this area of space weather cover future suborbital flights as well (Tuesday, 1:30 p.m., B315).
A typical flight exposes airline passengers to minimal levels of extraterrestrial radiation; such occasional exposures are not considered harmful. The radiation concern is usually reserved for high-flying pilots who spend a lot of time in the air, especially on long polar routes, or for flights during a solar storm.
But one source of gamma rays and typical x-rays might indeed be quite problematic, though very rare, for ordinary air travelers. The radiation is not from outer space, but instead from Earth.
A research group led by Joe Dwyer, professor of physics and space sciences at Florida Institute of Technology, shows that terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) produced by thunderclouds could expose nearby airplanes to a radiation dose of 10 rem. That’s about 400 chest X-rays, three CAT scans, or 7,500 hours of normal flight time, what the researchers describe as

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