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
Thats the goal of NSFs $20 million multi-institutional initiative
called the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM). NCARs
share, $3.3 million, will provide the High Altitude Observatory with the
funding to create a computer model of Earths 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 todays thunderstorm predictions.
In space weather were 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 weve 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 Earths 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 HAOs Stan 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 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 NCARs 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 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
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, Weve
got chunks of data concentrated in tiny areas in the midst of voluminous,
data-empty space. But weve got to start somewhere. Thats 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
UCARs Windows to the Universe Web site. 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
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 Earths polar and equatorial regions. And the most
dramatic manifestations of solar energy in Earths atmosphere are
the brilliant blazes of color in polar skies, known as auroras.
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