Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dodging Solar Storms

Coronal Holes (false color). Credit: SDO/AIA. Thanks to Spaceweather.com.

Every morning I like to check the weather reports. Not just local weather, but also the "weather" in space. Not only do we face threats from Near-Earth-orbiting asteroids, rogue asteroids, meteor showers, and cosmic radiation, but we have a giant nuclear fusion generator only 93,000,000 miles away pumping out stellar winds and radioactive storms that could damage life on Earth. It's interesting that the active events in our solar system have been linked to weather descriptions on Earth.

Thanks to Dr. Tony Phillips, you can watch out for our interplanetary space weather, too. He's created the website http://www.spaceweather.com to bring you the latest news in space storms and potential hazards to Earth. Over the years, as I've visited the site each day, I've really come to understand better the overall picture of our solar system's "weather" cycles and how it all affects us here on planet Earth.

Take sunspots, for example:

Woops! No big Spots!

Every day you can monitor the surface of the Sun that faces the Earth. Sunspots are linked to magnetic solar storms which can emit large blasts of energy towards the Earth. More significantly, recent studies of sunspot populations over time has revealed that the amount of sunspots often has influence on the amount of cosmic radiation hitting the Earth, and even how much cloud cover we have, therefore impacting Global Warming. Forget about the minimal natural effect carbon dioxide has on the climate, the Sun is the real culprit!

And then there's coronal holes. As seen in the top picture, we study x-rays from the sun to monitor these gaping holes in the Sun's plasma, and we've learned how magnetic lines flowing from the holes directs the Solar Wind. That wind also has its affect upon our atmosphere. Thank goodness for our own magnetic fields, which shield us from the Sun's expulsion of solar particles.

Currently, it seems the surface of the Sun is quiet with regard to Sunspots, but coronal holes exist and solar flares could erupt towards Earth at any time. On Spaceweather.com, you can look at predictions for the Sun's interference with our magnetic fields, and when a large coronal mass ejection occurs, you can read warnings of when the storms will hit Earth and expected damage that could be done. Some storms have been able to knock out power grids, interfere with satellite communications, threaten radiation damage to astronauts, and worse. It was increased solar activity which caused the rapid loss of altitude of the famous Skylab space station in the early 1970's eventually causing it to enter the Earth's atmosphere far earlier than planned.

Of course we also get the magnificent Aurora Borealis, the Northern lights. With the change in seasons, we now approach the time when the rising Sun will be up in the Arctic circle for 6 months, and the night lights (interaction of solar particles with the Earth's magnetic fields) will not be visible again until Winter. The past winter has seen tremendous northern lights activity, even being spotted as far south as Northern Utah on rare occasions.

Make a visit to SpaceWeather.com. Check out why there may be little sunspot activity for now, how that may affect us on Earth, and how it relates to the Sun's 11-year cycle.

So don't just think about if there might be some rain this morning or if there's a dangerous storm front approaching. Watch out for spaceweather!

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