Space Weather at Climate & Space

It’s Quiet… Too Quiet.

Do you know what makes running a space weather blog easier? Space weather. Like, space weather actually happening.

Guess what’s not happening?  Space weather.  

That is, of course, and exaggeration.  Just like weather on the Earth, space weather is always happening.  Just like on Earth, however, when things are calm and boring, you are less likely to get cool news stories.  

This has been exactly the case with space weather.  The only events that we have observed in the past month or so are from coronal holes.  These are regions on the sun where the solar wind is faster than other places.  The fast solar wind catches up to the slow solar wind on the way to the Earth and compresses up against it.  This is similar to when you’re driving to work, and the slow guy in the fast lane causes ten cars to impatiently bunch up together.  When this bunched-up solar wind arrives at Earth, it creates a small space weather storm.  These types of events are boring and very easy to predict: given a slowly changing Sun, a single coronal hole (the source of fast solar wind) will create a space weather storm every 27 days, which is the time it takes for the Sun to rotate once.

To make things more interesting, we need solar active regions, or sunspots, to spice things up.  Sun spots are small regions on the Sun’s surface where the Sun’s magnetic field and particles are active and unstable.  They are the source of real space weather storms. 

The major problem for interesting space weather is that there are no sunspots.  None!

Images from the Solar Dynamic Observatory showing that Sun spots are on spring break.

This story from NASA has all the details, but the gist of it is that we are currently in a stretch of such weak solar activity that there are no observable sunspots.  The Sun has an activity cycle of 11 years.  We are right in the middle of solar minimum of Cycle 24, one of the most boring solar cycles in recorded history.  The cycle has hit an activity level of zero.  This is so boring that it wraps over and becomes interesting again.

Periods like this are sparse but not unheard of.  There have been long stretches of boring, notably, the Maunder Minimum of the late 1600s and early 1700s.  To be clear, we are not anywhere near that level of inactivity.  Indeed, if you wander over to the Solar Dynamics Observatory data site, you can see that sunspots have already returned.  However, the increasing amount of boring has led some scientists to wonder if we’re not heading into a new prolonged period of solar boring.  This would be especially exciting for solar physicists, who work to understand the solar dynamo.  For space weather, however, it would just be… boring.

See you on the dark side of the Sun.

This is pretty cool- CLaSP professor Justin Kasper is going to be featured in an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary called “The Dark Side of the Sun“.  The program will discuss space weather effects and how we learn about the Sun.  It will include extensive discussion on an upcoming mission, Solar Probe Plus, which will get closer to the sun than any previous mission.  It’s always exciting to see CLaSP researchers in the limelight for their work!

GPS as a Space Weather Monitor

GPS satellite orbits around the Earth.  Each satellite has a radiation sensor that can be used to learn more about the radiation belts.
GPS satellite orbits around the Earth. Each satellite has a radiation sensor that can be used to learn more about the radiation belts.

Big space weather news this week: measurements of the “radiation belts” made by the Global Positioning System satellites are now available to space weather researchers.  This is a huge deal for several reasons, but let’s start by unpacking that sentence:

Continue reading “GPS as a Space Weather Monitor”

New Breakthroughs in Space Weather Prediction at Michigan

A simulated (left) vs. observed (right) CME as seen from near-Earth.  CLaSP's EEGL model is successfully reproducing key features of observations.
A simulated (left) vs. observed (right) CME as seen from near-Earth. CLaSP’s EEGL model is successfully reproducing key features of observations.

One of the ongoing research projects here at the University of Michigan’s Climate and Space department is computer simulations of eruptive events from the solar atmosphere into the solar system.  “Eruptive events” are explosions of material (mostly super-hot hydrogen gas) and magnetic fields into space.  The atmosphere of the sun is locked in a delicate balance between gravity, which holds the atmosphere down, and the expansive force of the super-hot atmosphere, which pushes it away.  On top of this are complicated magnetic and electric forces.  When the balance breaks down, you get an explosion of material into space.  These are known as “coronal mass ejections”, or CMEs.  Simulating these events is incredibly difficult because the physics behind CMEs is only tenuously understood.

Here at CLaSP, scientists have had a breakthrough with their new EEGGL model- the Eruptive Event Generator: Gibson-Lowe model.  This model has had great success in reproducing solar storm observations, which is the first step towards prediction of these storms before they arrive at Earth.  NASA has recently highlighted this new science, so be sure to give that article a read.  

Space Weather at AGU’s Fall Meeting

Ooooh!  Pretty.
San Francisco’s beautiful commercial district skyline, as viewed from Union Square at night in December.

There are a few reasons for the recent dearth of posts here, but prominently,

  1. The weather in space has been especially boring as of recent,
  2. The end of each year is marked by the American Geophysical Union’s Fall meeting.

The latter, known colloquially as “the AGU meeting” by frequent attendees, is an annual gathering of more than 20,000 scientists, spanning many specialties, at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.  At this meeting, there are thousands of presentations, talks, discussions, and meetings.  It occurs every December and has a penchant for consuming participants- both during and well before the event itself.  This is because it requires a great amount preparation before and endurance throughout: you will run from session to session, talk to talk, poster to poster, meeting to meeting, from very early to very late.  It is an extremely important week where your colleagues, competitors, funders, and managers will all be present, so you must be “on” at all times.

This year’s AGU meeting saw a huge increase in sessions dedicated to space weather, with some very exciting talks and discussions.   Continue reading “Space Weather at AGU’s Fall Meeting”

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