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.  

AGU is Really, Really Big.

Let’s start with the scale of the meeting, which is hard to understand unless you’re there yourself.  As an example, consider the picture below of the crowds forming at the start of a coffee break:

Crowds form at the start of a coffee break between sessions at Fall AGU.
Crowds form at the start of a coffee break between sessions at Fall AGU.

This is one floor of three; one building of three- in other words, 1/9th of the total crowd!  Included in this are poster sessions, where scientists can wander amongst thousands of scientific posters illustrating new results:

A bird's eye view of an AGU poster session in the Moscone Center.
A bird’s eye view of an AGU poster session in the Moscone Center.

Again, one picture cannot capture the size of the event; the above shot is about 1/3rd of the poster hall.  Away from the posters, there are many large presentation rooms, each capable of seating several hundred people.  Here’s the view of the presenter stage & screen from near the front of a typical room:

A presenter from the Air Force Research Lab discusses instrumentation on the new DSX spacecraft.

This image illustrates the audience’s all-to-common fear of sitting to close to the front of the room; despite the meager appearance, this session drew around one hundred observers.

A New Focus on Space Weather

In the past, the topic of space weather has commanded around four to six sessions, each a two hour period of talks or posters.  This does not include space science sessions with relevance to space weather.  This year, there were fifteen sessions directly addressing space weather, making it impossible to follow all of the new results and discussion.  This represents an explosion in interest and research.

Much of the increase can be attributed to recent documents released by the Office of Science and Technology Policy: the National Space Weather Strategy and the Space Weather Action Plan.  These documents lay out a strategy for the federal government to address threats of space weather, and include plans for academia, NOAA, NASA, and others.  At Fall AGU, there were panels lead by government agency leaders to discuss these issues with members of the scientific community.  There were also sessions dedicated to how the goals of the two OSTP documents are being achieved or can be achieved in the future.  Beyond the OSTP-related sessions, there were many sessions concerned with discussing specific space weather subtopics.  Needless to say, it was a very busy event.

New Progress in Space Weather Forecasting

In these new sessions, we saw some exciting new research.  Here are a few interesting highlights:

  • As pictured above, there was an update on the Air Force Research Laboratory’s forthcoming DSX satellite.  This spacecraft is a dedicated space weather probe with instruments to measure the radiation belts and high energy solar radiation.
  • AFRL scientists also showed computer simulations of satellite charging.  Satellites can collect a static electric charge while in space.  When the charge shorts out, it can interfere with the spacecraft operations.
  • Researchers from Predictive Science, Inc. showed early returns from their effort to use computer pattern recognition to predict solar storms from the Sun to the Earth well before they are observed.  Their early results are mixed, but this is a promising area and a topic to watch.
  • Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory showed observations of the radiation belts from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.  Each GPS satellite (yes, the same GPS you use in your car) has a small radiation sensor.  When you combine the observations from all 24 GPS satellites, you get comprehensive coverage in space- something that is very difficult to achieve!
  • Researchers from the Catholic University of America showed their progress in combining the electric conductivity of the Earth’s crust and mantle in their calculations of Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GICs).  GICs are space weather-driven currents that can damage the power grid.  GICs can flow through the ground instead of power lines, so folding ground conductivity into these calculations is critical.
  • Finally, yours truly showed updates to our work supporting the transition of the Space Weather Modeling Framework to operations at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.  You can see the real-time model results here.
Steve Morley of LANL shows observations of the radiation belts made by the GPS satellite constellation.
Steve Morley of LANL shows observations of the radiation belts made by the GPS satellite constellation.

All of this is just a sample of the new science presented.  It was great to see a strong, growing space weather presence at Fall AGU.