• Dr. Timothy Smith

How About That Space Weather?

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

People talk about the weather all the time. For example, a survey conducted in Great Britain found that their citizens talk about the weather every day and to such an extent that it consumes over four months of their lives! (independent.co.uk) The weather makes for great small talk. However, it can serve as a helpful warning such as "it's going to rain, so bring an umbrella," or more seriously, "we are expecting freezing rain, I'd stay off the roads."

Much less common weather talk revolves around activity beyond earth--space weather. Space weather refers to the changes in the solar wind emanating from the sun. The sun generates heat and light energy that warms our planet and supports life. The massive, dense core of the sun produces so much pressure that hydrogen atoms literally get squeezed together so hard that they fuse and become a new molecule—helium. That fusion, just like a hydrogen bomb, releases light, energy and charged molecules called ions. Because the sun does not turn off, its continuous production of energy and ions creates a solar wind that continuously buffets the earth, the moon, and all the other planets in the solar system. Such a wind of ions and radiation would cause significant harm to living things on earth, except the world has a magnetic shield surrounding it that redirects the harmful ions away from the earth's surface and towards the poles. However, some of the ions do get into our atmosphere near the north and south poles. When the ions hit molecules in our atmosphere, they produce the beautiful light shows called the northern lights or auroras.

Like the earth, the sun also has an atmosphere, except its temperature measures 2,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit! (jpl.nasa.gov) On the same token, just like earth, the sun's atmosphere has storms and quiet times too. The solar storms can produce greater solar wind and increased waves of ions which translates into rough solar weather. When the solar weather gets bad, the ions will hit our magnetic shield so hard that the shield will vibrate. When our magnetic shield vibrates hard enough, it can create electrical currents in the ground, atmosphere, machines, and even animals. The electrical currents from solar storms wreak havoc on our electronics, sometimes melting the copper wires in power transformers. The most famous storm, known as the Carrington Event, happened over one hundred years ago in September 1859. (science.nasa.gov) The geomagnetic storm of 1859 caused widespread damage to telegraph systems across North America, even setting fire to some telegraph stations.

Space weather not only affects machines and power grids; it has a direct impact on organisms too. In an review article titled “The Impact of Space Weather on Human Health,” published in BioMedical Journal of Scientific and Technical Research, the author, Stephan Unger, describes a variety of different possible effects of geomagnetic disturbances on human health, including cardiovascular issues such stroke, heart attacks, and migrains. The research looks interesting but does need more data to firmly establish the claims.

One animal clearly suffers the effects of a solar storm—the homeing pigeon. Research has shown that homing pigeons use the magnetic field of the earth to help guide them home over great distances. Thereby, changes in the earth’s magnetic field due to space storms demonstrably affects the ability of homing pigeons to accurately navigate the world. People enjoy raising homeing pigeons as a hobby and participating in races where they release their pigeons tens to hundreds of miles from home and see which ones get home first. It has happened that a strong geomagnetic storm can throw the pigeons off course and can even cause them to get lost. In fact, homing pigeon race organizers often check the space weather forcasts for space storms and will cancel homeing pigeon races if a storm is forcasted. (spaceplace.nasa.gov) Tragically, just a few days ago on June 19, 2021, a geomagnetic storm hit homeing pigeon races in Britain resulting in the loss of an estimated 10,000 birds with some scattered as far away as Holland and Majorca. (dailymail.co.uk)

How could the pigeon race organizers have predicted that a space strom could impact their event? The Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studies weather, including space weather. NOAA has made their space weather data feeds available to the the public. NOAA monitors the fluctuations in the magnetic field of the earth with Station K and A Indices, which measure changes in the magnetic field of the earth and scores them 0-9 with 9 being the most intense. Check out this link to see real Station K and A data! (noaa.gov) Clicking the link brings you to the NOAA site where you can find space weather predictions and historical data.

Today, with our massive dependence on electricity to power our homes, businesses, communications, and computers, a massive geomagnetic storm like the Carrington Event would have tremendous effects on our lives. According to the NASA report "Severe Space Weather--Social and Economic Impacts," an event like 1859 could knock out electricity for days at a national scale, disrupt GPS, which would disable self-driving cars and navigation, and interrupt communications.

People love to talk about the weather, and weather talk can serve as a warning to stay dry or avoid dangerous situations. People do not speak much about space weather, but it can have a massive impact on our safety. Huge storms of ions from the sun called geomagnetic storms can slam into the earth's magnetic shield, causing it to vibrate and create electrical currents on the ground causing damage to electronics such as computers, satellites, and electrical grids. Such events have happened throughout history. Even recently, in 1989 in Quebec, Canada, a geomagnetic storm knocked out electricity for six million people. NASA and other agencies have developed a space weather monitoring program designed to predict if a significant space storm could hit the earth. An early warning would allow electrical grid operators to power down and prevent damage to the grid. In addition, people could shield their electronics like TVs, phones, and computers with grounded aluminum foil cages to prevent damage. Space weather may not hit the level of everyday small talk, but it certainly should be taken seriously in our electricity-dependent world.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.