NSF center 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 NSF’s $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 today’s thunderstorm predictions.

“In space weather we’re 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 we’ve 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 Sun’s corona on 15 May 2001. This composite image was captured by two instruments at the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, which is operated by NCAR’s 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 NOAA’s Space Environment Center. Of the initial funding, $3.3 million will enable NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory to refine a computer model of Earth’s upper atmosphere originally created by HAO scientist Raymond Roble.

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 Stanford’s Wilcox Solar Observatory) and space-based (such as NASA’s 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 thermosphere—the 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 Earth’s polar and equatorial regions. “The big solar energy blasts move fast and can have a huge impact on the ionosphere,” says NCAR’s Stanley Solomon. “With the planned CISM model, it’s 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 time—hours to days—to 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 HAO’s 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 Sun’s outer atmosphere).

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 UCAR’s Windows to the Universe site (see “On the Web”). Nonscientists can experience what it’s 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.


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