boosts space weather modeling
What if scientists could predict upper-atmospheric storms before they
disrupt communications satellites, or give earlier notice of spectacular
displays of the northern and southern lights? These are among the goals
of NSFs $20-million, multi-institutional initiative called the
Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), announced last
September. Thanks to this initiative, scientists expect forecasts of
solar-generated events to become as commonplace as todays thunderstorm
In space weather were about where weather forecasters
were 40 years ago, says NCAR director Tim Killeen, a principal
investigator for CISM. But we have the advantage that the computing
power and the modeling know-how already exist. And now weve got
the resources to make significant progress within just a few years.
One of six recent additions to the growing NSF roster of Science and
Technology Centers, CISM will be based at Boston University and led
by Jeffrey Hughes.
A coronal mass ejection with an erupting prominence (comprising
cold, dense material) breaks out of the Suns corona on 15 May
2001. This composite image was captured by two instruments at the
Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, which is operated by NCARs High
Altitude Observatory: CHIP (Chromospheric Helium I Imaging Photometer)
and the Mark-IV K-Coronameter. (Image courtesy Anthony Darnell, NCAR.)
Along with NCAR and BU, the initiative includes seven academic partners
(Alabama A&M University, Dartmouth College, Rice and Stanford Universities,
and the Universities of California, Berkeley; Colorado at Boulder; and
Texas at El Paso) as well as Science Applications International Corporation,
the Space Science Institute, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and NOAAs
Space Environment Center. Of the initial funding, $3.3 million will
enable NCARs High Altitude Observatory to refine a computer model
of Earths upper atmosphere originally created by HAO scientist
The NCAR contribution will be part of a comprehensive research model
that will simulate space weather, from solar explosions to auroras (southern
and northern lights) to geomagnetic storms on Earth. This early effort
will be tested against observations from many sources, both ground-based
(such as Stanfords Wilcox Solar Observatory) and space-based (such
as NASAs Advanced Composition Explorer and High Energy Solar Spectroscopic
Imager satellites). The model will evolve as new understanding of the
underlying physics is developed.
Much of the CISM research will focus on the impact of the Sun on the
ionosphere and thermospherethe final link in the space weather
chain stretching from the Sun to Earth. Satellite orbits can drop in
altitude because of increased drag during high solar activity, and communications
and navigation systems can be disrupted by changes in the ionosphere
in Earths polar and equatorial regions. The big solar energy
blasts move fast and can have a huge impact on the ionosphere,
says NCARs Stanley Solomon. With the planned CISM model,
its within our technical reach to advance from the current system
of alerts and warnings for these events to more precise numerical forecasts.
These can give us enough lead timehours to daysto prepare
for possible disruptions.
Sarah Gibson, who conducts solar dynamics research at NCAR for CISM,
is providing observations of the lower corona for the model. These observations,
unique to HAOs Mauna Loa Solar Observatory in Hawaii, are important
because the lower corona is the origination point for coronal mass ejections
(the eruptions of large amounts of matter from the Suns outer
Gibson is also looking into the physical processes that underlie solar
dynamics. By better understanding the Sun on a theoretical level, she
points out, we can make our models more accurate and be better
able to interpret observational signs of impending eruptions.
Roberta Johnson, an HAO scientist who also heads the UCAR Education
and Outreach program, will be channeling some of this newfound knowledge
to the public through UCARs Windows to the Universe site (see
On the Web). Nonscientists can experience what its
like to run the computer model and browse actual model results. A Boulder-based
teacher will be invited to help EO develop classroom activities for
exploring the upper atmosphere. Eventually, an NCAR workshop will train
local teachers on presenting space weather materials in the classroom.
We are confident, says CISM deputy director Charles Goodrich
(University of Maryland), that with the knowledge base and the
advanced computer technology now available, we can create the first
integrated predictive space weather model within the next 10 years.
That would be in the nick of time to capture part of the next solar
maximum, expected to peak around 2011.