As our global reliance on satellite and ground-based technologies grow, so too does our dependence on space weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) produces space weather forecasts, alerts and warnings from exhaustive analysis, modeling and observations that are invaluable to civilian, military and commercial operations around the world.
NOAA spearheads space weather activities on both a national and international level. Down the street from CU-Boulder, it serves as an incredible resource to university students and researchers. As SWPC Chief Scientist and CU Aerospace Engineering Sciences (AES) Adjunct Professor, Dr. Howard Singer stimulates collaborations between these two institutions, promoting exchanges of expertise and insight.
As most Coloradans can attest, the sun is an integral part of our everyday existence, affecting everything from our agriculture to our mood. However, the sun not only passively impact’s life through its rather constant emission of visible radiation; but through other forms of radiation and particle emissions, it can and does violently alter Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, interfering with and sometimes damaging near-Earth and ground-based systems such as satellites and power grids.
The SWPC has identified three types of space weather that are primarily responsible for wreaking terrestrial havoc: geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts.
Geomagnetic storms result from several causes, but the largest are from coronal mass ejections (CMEs), bursts of billions of tons of high-energy plasma and embedded magnetic field interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. Check out a video of a coronal mass ejection, as captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, below:
At their most severe, geomagnetic storms can cause widespread blackouts and transformer failures (think of the geomagnetic storm in March 1989 that knocked out power in Quebec for 9 hours).
Solar radiation storms occur when high-energy particles are accelerated at the sun in association with solar flares and by coronal mass ejections as they expand outward from the sun. Cruising along the solar wind’s magnetic lines, these charged particles can arrive at the Earth in as little as 15 minutes. If extreme, these storms can expose astronauts to high radiation hazards and pose risks for high-flying aviation crews, while potentially rendering some satellites useless.
Radio blackouts are caused by bursts of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet radiation from solar flares. Moving at the speed of light, these solar storms are among the most difficult to predict. At their worst, these storms can result in multi-hour complete high-frequency radio blackouts on the sunlit side of Earth.
Using solar-observing instruments aboard satellites such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Explorer (SDO), the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and a wealth of other observations, including NOAA’s Geosynchronous Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), coupled with US Geological Survey, and other partner ground-based magnetometers, the SWPC runs models that predict the arrival, duration and severity of solar-generated storms. Dr. Singer explains:
“We are trying to build a ‘weather-ready nation.’ As part of NOAA and the National Weather Service, it is our job [at the SWPC] to provide alerts, warnings and forecasts about space weather conditions that can affect societal activities, health and safety, and economic vitality.”
Over 42,000 customers from across the world currently subscribe to the SWPC’s product subscription list that includes daily forecasts which detail active solar regions and peak events. The SWPC’s customers span a diverse array of industries, from aviation and satellites to drilling operations.
Admittedly, these forecasts are not infallible. With the rapidity with which solar radiation storms and radio blackouts strike Earth, as well as the current inability of researchers to measure the imbedded magnetic fields of coronal mass ejections, it can be difficult to correctly predict the arrival and strength of solar storms. However, without these forecasts, and other mitigating measures, estimates of the economic impact of space weather range into the billions, or even trillions, of dollars as noted in the National Research Council Report on “Severe Space Weather Events-Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts Workshop Report” (2008).
Dr. Singer’s entry into the world of space weather forecasting and its complexities was defined by “serendipity.” He reflects:
“I always had an innate interest in science. My interest in space weather was a combination of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. One day [as a graduate student], I was reading Parade Magazine, and I saw an advertisement to go to the South Pole to conduct research with [UCLA Professor] Louis Slichter. I ended up spending 13 months [at the South Pole], and in part, my observations of the aurora there got me interested in space weather.”
Eventually, after a Ph.D. from UCLA, Dr. Singer was recruited to work for NOAA on magnetometers for the GOES weather satellite. Over time, Dr. Singer transitioned to Chief of NOAA’s Research and Development Division, and ultimately, to Chief Scientist of the SWPC. He explains:
“My job is to stay in touch with what is going on in the US and in the rest of the world in terms of modeling, observations and [space weather] understanding. I help make the connection between what we are producing [in regards to space weather forecasts] and what our customers need.”
Dr. Singer finds great value in pairing his SWPC duties with research collaborations, being an editor of the Space Weather Journal, and teaching opportunities at CU, as he notes:
“I learn so much by working with the excellent students at CU. When I give a lecture, it refreshes rusty material and really keeps me on my toes. I’ve served on several graduate student thesis committees, and worked with many faculty, students and researchers at CU, including those in the CU AES department on studying Earth’s radiation belts, storms and substorms. Fundamentally, keeping engaged in academia informs me about areas of research that I can bring back to NOAA.”
Beyond its university involvement, NOAA is intimately connected to the broader Boulder, national and international communities. Every April, the SWPC hosts a Space Weather Workshop for upwards of 300 researchers and operators impacted by space weather events. Locally, some of the scientists at SWPC are members of the “Boulder Solar Alliance” and the “Friends of the Magnetosphere,” an informal seminar series that brings together researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) High Altitude Observatory (HAO), CU’s AES Department and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), NOAA and other Boulder institutions involved in space science. NOAA also works closely with the commercial sector and industry, including local companies such as Ball Aerospace and currently Lockheed Martin on the production of spacecraft and instrumentation for missions like GOES.
As a consequence of space weather’s global impact, the SWPC maintains numerous international collaborations. Notably, the SWPC works with space weather activities conducted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and serves as the World Warning Agency for the16 Regional Warning Centers of the International Space Environment Services, sharing data and information that helps space weather forecasters globally produce more accurate predictions.
Despite being a phenomenon that touches human lives almost ubiquitously, space weather, and its impacts, can be hidden from the public eye. Singer notes: “Space weather is indirect. It may affect the satellite that affects the TV signal you are watching. Or it may affect the GPS that you are using to drive home. But the solar wind won’t blow your hat off.”
Even so, Singer optimistically notes a trend towards greater public awareness of and involvement in space weather: “When I talk to people about space weather, they are receptive. They are interested and often will say something like, ‘doesn’t that have to do with solar flares?’ Even the Office of Science and Technology Policy [in D.C.] in the Executive Office of the President is taking notice. As we speak, they are working on an action plan for a National Space Weather Strategy for dealing with extreme space weather events.”
-Written By: Ari Sandberg, Intern