Small Storms & Big Blusters

This has been an interesting week.  We’ve had two solar storm predictions of note.  The first was the promise of a huge, potentially devastating event slated to arrive on March 18th.  The second is far less newsworthy: a high-speed stream is scheduled to drive activity at Earth between today and tomorrow.  What are we left with between these two reports?  A case study of both good and bad space science reporting.  Let’s break these down in reverse order:

Tonight’s High Speed Stream Event

A high-speed stream is coming to Earth!  Stock up on food, water, and aurora-watching equipment!  Get John Williams to score a moving anthem so that we have a suitable audio backdrop for the endtimes!

A high-speed stream (HSS for short) is a space weather storm that is not caused by a solar flare or coronal mass ejection.  Rather, it is the result of fast solar wind catching up to the slow solar wind and creating a compressed wave of material.  When this wave hits Earth, we’ll see a jump in space weather activity, including the aurora.  Such events are only moderately “geoeffective” (a term that describes their ability to drive space weather in the Earth system).  Indeed, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is predicting a “G1 Event”, which is their lowest classification.  They rarely have the energy content of storms that are driven by flares or CMEs.  HSS events are easier to predict, however.  Fast solar wind comes from “coronal holes”, or large regions on the solar surface.  These last for months, and the sun rotates once every 28 days.  This means that if there is an HSS today, there’s a good chance you’ll see a similar one in less than a month.

Tonight, I honestly don’t expect much in the way of interesting space weather.  Only at high latitudes (Greenland, Alaska, northern Canada) should aurora be expected.  If you’re more southward, be sure to check out my tips on determining storm strength in real time before you go outside and look to the skies.  We’ll keep John Williams on retainer for a bigger event.

The Bad Science Storm

On Monday, March 12th, several “news” outlets reported that there would be a MAJOR solar storm to arrive six days later on March 18th.  The stories note a source from the Russian Academy of Sciences, but for some reason I cannot track down the source beyond that.  Some stories about this storm listed the terrible health effects associated with such a storm.  The only health effect I experienced was nausea.  From bad science.  Let’s break this down:

The first warning sign in this story is the incredible amount of lead time given to the storm.  In space weather forecasting, 6 days is an eternity!  The quiet time solar wind takes about two days to reach Earth from the Sun.  This means that this prediction would come 4 days before we saw an event happen on the solar surface (e.g., a solar flare).  Scientists just aren’t that good at predicting such events before we see them!  It’s a major challenge in space science.  The exception is high speed streams, but those rarely produce MAJOR events at Earth.  Don’t forget that MAJOR space weather storms are moving faster, and can travel between the Sun and the Earth in 36 hours or less.  This makes a long lead time predictions even harder.

The second warning sign is that the prediction is very specific.  The size and arrival time of the event are given.  Space weather forecasting just doesn’t produce very specific forecasts… yet.  Look at the HSS forecast above from NOAA- the arrival time window spans two days!  Additionally, there are many qualifiers to the outcome of the storm- it may cause aurora and might interrupt communications.  We never know how geoeffective space weather storms are until we can measure the solar wind directly via the DSCOVR spacecraft.  At this point, we have less than 45 minutes before the event reaches Earth.  Some of the most scary looking events from the sun aren’t very geoeffective in the end while some of the more wimpy looking flares can drive strong aurora.  We never know until the last moments before arrival.

Finally, there’s this blurb:

However, some [magnetic storms] also affect humans and other living organisms by changing blood flow, blood pressure, and boosting adrenalin, according to spacedaily.com.  Russian scientists claim, as reported by denofgeek.com, that March 18 magnetic storm may cause headaches, dizziness and sleep disturbances for some people across the globe.

Aaaaannnnd we’ve left reality at this point.  It is true that there is a tiny minority within the Russian sciences that study biological affects of space weather.  However, studies that make claims like the ones above are widely considered to be from cranks.  Their methods are questionable at best.  Their statistics are poor.  It’s not good science.  It’s pseudoscience.  

In the end, NOAA SWPC refuted the ridiculous claims of impending doom and many of the websites posted retractions.  Here’s the money line:

“This story is not plausible in any way, shape or form… Things are all quiet for space weather, and the sun is essentially spotless,” said Bob Rutledge, the head of NOAA’s Space Weather Forecast Center

I guess we’re safe after all.  Sleep tight, citizens.