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U.N. Upgrading ‘Space Weather’ Forecasts

June 9, 2011

Experts said a U.N. plan to upgrade “space weather” forecasts can help the world cope with solar storms that might rack up to $2 trillion in damages if the sun repeated a giant flare of 1859.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the sun is entering a more active phase due to peak in 2013 on about 11-year sunspot cycle.  Power supplies, air traffic control, communications and satellites can all be disrupted by storms.

“We are increasingly being impacted by space weather,” Barbara Ryan, director of the space weather program at the Geneva-based WMO, told Reuters.

According to Reuters, there was a need to coordinate forecasts and upgrade warnings of looming storms.

“No country has enough resources alone … we need observations from all over the globe,” she said. “A common alerting protocol (is) an issue we will be looking at over the next couple of years” to help limit impacts.

Geomagnetic storms on the sun take between half a day and 5 days to reach the Earth after they erupt.  China has 20 monitoring stations on land tracking the upper atmosphere, the higher ionosphere and the sun.

The WHO agreed to boost international coordination of space weather, working with the International Space Environment Service and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

It said among goals are to “improve space weather awnings to major application areas including aviation.”

Early warnings can allow countries to reroute flights to avoid polar routes, turn off unnecessary electric equipment or switch frequencies of some transmissions.  Research is able to bring improved designs to shield vulnerable equipment.

NASA said a solar superstorm on September 1, 1859 set off fires in telegraph offices and produced an aurora so bright that people could read newspapers at night by the glow.

NASA said that a report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has estimated a similar storm today could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damage and require four to 10 years for recovery.

“WMO has an opportunity to coordinate action to address a growing environmental vulnerability,” Jack Hayes of the U.S. weather service told a space weather event during the WMO congress in Geneva.

Hayes said a 2003 storm caused re-routing of flights over routes most vulnerable in disturbances, led operators to reduce output from U.S. nuclear power plants and damaged transformers in South Africa.

Ryan said that better forecasts could help the world improve protection for vulnerable personnel, especially astronauts, and equipment like power stations and communications networks.

Space weather forecasts could get more widely known, with scales like those used to measure earthquakes or hurricanes. 

She said “We’d like to bring the same kind of structure to space weather.”

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses a scale of one to five for geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms and radio blackouts.

Image Caption: The Sun shows a C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (wave-like structure, upper right) and multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface. Credit: NASA/SDO

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