Here Comes the Sun (Storms)

Posted: November 8, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Space weather: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.  Except have meetings and perhaps write grant proposals…but seriously (no, really seriously):

Prompted by a recent increase in solar activity, more than a hundred researchers and government officials are converging on Helwan, Egypt, to discuss a matter of global importance: storms from the sun. The “First Workshop of the International Space Weather Initiative (ISWI)” meets Nov. 6th through 10th and is convened by the United Nations, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

But the idea behind ISWI is to get to the point of doing more than just having meetings.  And why does anyone care about space weather?  Because of space weather’s impact.

“Strong solar storms can knock out power, disable satellites, and scramble GPS,” says meeting organizer and ISWI executive director Joe Davila of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  “This meeting will help us prepare for the next big event.”

A key problem organizers hope to solve is a gap–many gaps, actually—in storm coverage around our planet. When a big storm is underway, waves of ionization ripple through Earth’s upper atmosphere, electric currents flow through the topsoil, and the whole planet’s magnetic field begins to shake.

Space weather doesn’t only manifest itself at the poles, either.

Although space weather is usually associated with Earth’s polar regions–think, “Northern Lights”–the equator can be just as interesting. For example, there is a phenomenon in Earth’s upper atmosphere called the “equatorial anomaly.”  It is, essentially, a fountain of ionization that circles the globe once a day, always keeping its spout toward the sun. During solar storms, the equatorial anomaly can intensify and shape-shift, bending GPS signals in unexpected ways and making normal radio communications impossible.

Even though Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun and I do know that’s where the fun is, I think I get it: you do need a space weatherman to know which way the solar wind blows.

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