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HAO models will give space weather forecasts a boost

What if scientists could provide advance warning of upper-atmospheric disruptions that affect communications satellites or predict spectacular displays of the northern lights?

HAO's Stan Solomon took this photo of an aurora over Greeland.

That’s the goal of NSF’s $20 million multi-institutional initiative called the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM). NCAR’s share, $3.3 million, will provide the High Altitude Observatory with the funding to create a computer model of Earth’s upper atmosphere as well as unique information on solar dynamics. 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 forty 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.”

The NCAR contribution will be part of a more comprehensive research model that will mimic space weather, from solar explosions to auroras (southern and northern lights) to geomagnetic storms on Earth. The new technology will help scientists understand solar-terrestrial activity and eventually predict when and how it will affect activities on Earth. Much of the research will focus on the impact of the Sun on the ionosphere and thermosphere, which are the upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere.

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 HAO instruments on Mauna Loa in Hawaii: CHIP (Chromospheric Helium I Imaging Photometer) and the Mark-IV K-Coronameter. (Image courtesy of Tony Darnell.)

“The big solar energy blasts move fast and can have a huge impact on the ionosphere,” says HAO’s Stan 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 to communications and navigation.”

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 NCAR’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 that can affect sensitive electronics systems on and orbiting Earth).

Sarah is also looking into the physical processes that underlie solar dynamics. By better understanding the Sun on a theoretical level, she points out that we are in a stronger position for ultimately predicting when eruptions may occur. “If we can really understand the physics behind these processes, we can make our models more accurate and be better able to interpret observational signs of impending eruptions,” she says.

Roy Roble led the team that developed the NCAR model. Liying Qian and Wenbin Wang are focusing on coupling the models, among other tasks. Alan Burns, another HAO researcher involved in CISM, says, “We’ve got chunks of data concentrated in tiny areas in the midst of voluminous, data-empty space. But we’ve got to start somewhere. That’s what science is all about.”

Roberta Johnson, an HAO scientist who also heads Education and Outreach, will be channeling some of this newfound knowledge toward the public through UCAR’s Windows to the Universe Web site. 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.

Pictured from left: Stan Solomon, Alan Burns, Sarah Gibson, Art Richmond, Gang Lu, Wenbin Wang, and Roberta Johnson.

The ionosphere and thermosphere are the final link in the space weather chain stretching from the Sun to Earth. Important solar-terrestrial effects occur in these regions. Satellite orbits can drop in altitude because of increased drag during high solar activity and geomagnetic storms, and communications and navigation systems can be disrupted by changes in the ionosphere in Earth’s polar and equatorial regions. And the most dramatic manifestations of solar energy in Earth’s atmosphere are the brilliant blazes of color in polar skies, known as auroras.



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