Why monitor the Sun's activity?
Just before Christmas, the UK's national weather-forecasting service, the Met Office, announced that it would begin monitoring the Sun's activity, to advise space agencies and power distribution companies about the hazards that its radiation might pose. But what are the researchers working on the project hoping to achieve? Mark Gibbs heads up the Met Office's new space forecasting team...
Mark - What we are developing at the Met Office is the UK's Space Weather prediction capability. Space weather has been recognised by the government as being a key risk to the UK and we've been working very closely with government and a range of sectors that are likely to be impacted by space weather to understand what type of forecasting services they could use to help try and mitigate the risk. Really, this project is about putting together that forecasting system so we can provide warnings and alerts to both the government and those key sectors to try and minimise the impact to space weather on their operations.
Chris - What is the strict definition then of space weather?
Mark - At the moment, space weather has got a definition which is I think subtly changing. It has always been the impact of sudden bursts of energy and releases of matter and how that impacts on the Earth's environment and on the technology we use. But now, we're very much talking about sending manned missions to Mars and people are interested very much in the much wider solar system and the whole of what's called the heliosphere, the area of space affected by the sun underneath the magnetic field from the sun. So, whilst obviously we're clearly interested most in the Earth, increasingly mankind's interested in what's going elsewhere in our solar system.
Chris - How are you getting all of the data? Are you talking to lots of other organisations like you all around the Earth who are gathering the right sort of information and then you put it all together?
Mark - Absolutely. Forecasting space weather as with forecasting terrestrial weather is a global effort. So, most of the data, we're getting it from big international missions, satellite mission launched by NASA or ESA. We share data around the world with a range of partners, and also, working with UK partners. We get data from the British Geological Survey on the Magnetometers they have across the UK.
Probably, our most important relationship at the moment is with the NOAA National Weather Service and their space weather prediction centre. They're recognised as being the global leaders in this field. We're working very closely, in close partnership with them as we're developing our skills and our capability with the ultimate aim that we will provide mutual backup to each other because a big space weather event could have a massive impact on economies. Unlike terrestrial weather, a space weather event could affect large parts of the globe simultaneously. So, it's important that we have international resiliance so if there's a big impact in the US and that means the NOAA space weather prediction centre aren't capable of producing forecasts, there are other centres globally like us that can sort of step into their shoes, and actually, provide support to both US but also other nations around the world.
Chris - What will these space weather forecasts look or sound like if I were to receive one? What would be in it?
Mark - They would be very different from the sort of weather forecasts that we're used to. They're very risk focused so we're talking about probabilities of events happening. But we're looking to do things like predict the arrival time of these CME's, predict the electron fluence levels in the radiation belts where satellites fly. We're also looking to predict the probability of these solar flares occurring and the HF radio communication blackouts they produce. So, we try to talk more in terms of impacts rather than whether it rain or not. I can't see the day when we'll be putting space weather forecasts on TV say, because it is for very specialised market.
Chris - Who is that market? I would think the airline industry must be one organisation that are interested because they might want to change the course of where they send their airplanes and how high.
Mark - That's absolutely right. They can have issues with radio communications, any airlines flying directly over the poles, particularly the American Airlines that fly to the Far East and vice versa, fly directly over the poles. During even moderate space weather events, they will avoid the polar regions for safety reasons. Other sectors we're working particularly closely with is the energy sector. I think globally, the concern around the power grids is probably the greatest risk. We know from the 1989 event in Quebec where they had a region wide power outage and again in 2003 in Malmo where they had a citywide blackout. That's the one thing that really causes concern. Other sectors we'll be working with are people like the satellite industry. They want to understand when their satellites are going to be bombarded by higher radiation levels. The satellites are hardened to operate in that, but it is good practice for them to have extra engineers on board and be monitoring satellites more closely just to make sure that they're performing well.
Chris - You've got 150 plus years of experience of forecasting the weather. You've zero years for forecasting the space weather. This must be an on-the-job learning exercise then.
Mark - Very much so. We've done training courses for some of our forecasters because what we've done is we've taken weather forecasters and trained then additionally in space weather as well. Many of those forecasters, we've got about 12 trained space weather forecasters now and many of them have been over to the United States and sat in the space weather prediction centre in the US alongside dedicated space weather forecasters with a number of those who've got decades of experience in predicting space weather.
But you're absolutely right. A lot of it is learning on the job. This is the first solar cycle we're all going through and when we're at the early stage of the solar cycle we're seeing stuff which is exciting to us. Now, we look back, 18 months later and think, why did we get excited by that? That was just a minor blip. We're seeing bigger events happening now. So, it is a learning process and I think we all need to go through a whole solar cycle in the order of 10 or 11 years before we can actually say, "Yes, I'm starting to get a real understanding of space weather now." We need that sort of long period of experience before we really can understand the complete picture.