Did you know there is intense weather in space? There are intense geomagnetic storms and solar storms and they affect Earth and the many complex and interdependent technologies we use run our world. This space weather has significant economic and societal costs.
Dr. Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics spoke to Boulder Rotary Club on November 22nd
, about how the strong currents flowing in the ionosphere can disrupt and damage Earth-based electric power grids and contribute to the accelerated corrosion of oil and gas pipelines. Dr. Baker spoke about the larger picture of the socioeconomic impact of space weather- direct, indirect and collateral- on technology and its dependent infrastructures.
Throughout his long career, Dr. Baker focused primarily on studying the Sun, the Earth’s magnetic field and how the two interact with each other. He also looks at other planetary systems with this knowledge of the interplay between a star and a planet with (or without) a magnetic field as part of the planet’s atmospheric defenses.
Keeping it local, Dr. Baker wanted to focus on the effects of the Sun’s “weather” on humans in space, satellite operations, power grids and communication systems and even the climate of Earth.
He started by explaining that the Earth has a magnetic shield which emanates from the molten core of metals in the center of the planet. It is largely dipolar. (Which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “a pair of equal and oppositely charged or magnetized poles separated by a distance.”) This magnetic field covers the earth and has a tail as we rotate around the sun. This magnetic shield, according to Dr. Baker, is the magnetosphere and it protects us from the solar winds and gasses from our sun as well as many of the cosmic rays that come at Earth from deep in the galaxy. The magnetosphere extends from the Earth about 40,000 miles- it is not a fixed boundary and responds to fluctuations in the magnetic field of the Earth as well as emanations from the Sun and other cosmic radiation sources. (Want to know more about our magnetic shield? NOAA has a few facts for you, click HERE
This magnetic field surrounding the Earth is so important to us that life probably would not have evolved without it.
Even with the magnetosphere around us, sometimes powerful energy from the sun can hit the magnetosphere,
open a “gate” and penetrate it. Dr. Baker said this interaction causes powerful geomagnetic storms. The energy has to disperse, and it does that by flowing down toward the polar regions giving rise to what Dr. Baker called, “enhanced energetic particle populations” and what we might call the Aurora. (Photo by Swen Stroop.)
Dr. Baker shared Oscar Wilde’s observation that “Conversations about the weather are the last refuge of the unimaginative.” However, Dr. Baker said we need to talk about “space weather.” He defined space weather as the “dynamic conditions of the space environment that arise from emissions from the Sun, which include solar flares, solar energetic particles, and coronal mass ejections (CME). These emissions can interact with Earth and its surrounding space, including the Earth’s magnetic field, potentially disrupting electric power systems, satellite, aircraft and spacecraft operations; telecommunications; position, navigation, and timing services; and other technologies and infrastructures.”
The Sun has weather cycles (sun spot activity) which is usually in eleven year cycles. Dr. Baker said we’re in a very low period of sun activity right now. When it’s active, Dr. Baker said the Sun can produce coronal mass ejections and it can also produce huge fluxes of charged particles that blind “imagers in space.”
Right now, according to Dr. Baker, there are about 2000 active satellites around the Earth. About 1800 are in lower Earth orbit and there are plans to put thousands more satellites into service in the next few years. Even though most all of the satellites are within the field of the magnetosphere, the Sun’s activity can affect satellites – it can damage their electronics, cause interruptions in their communication, and cause physical damage to them. Dr. Baker said that it is hard to estimate the value of the civilian satellites in orbit above the Earth but it is in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment.
Lots of the world’s navigation devices depend on satellites. We normally refer to the service as GPS, the Global Positioning System. Within the last thirty years, GPS has been incorporated into more systems than most people imagine. It’s used heavily in construction, surveying, oceanography, seismic data collection, and communication services.
GPS is now integrated into airline navigation. Dr. Baker told the BRC that airlines used to have ground based navigational devices placed all over the U.S. and around the world. GPS made that system obsolete. That view was held until a very powerful geomagnetic storm in October of 2003 interrupted GPS systems communications rendering the whole system inoperable for about 30 hours.
Satellites are not the only technology vulnerable to the Sun’s emanations. The Sun can throw out high energy x-ray flairs that can disrupt high-frequency radio communication. (Airplanes still use high-frequency radio for their communications.) A flair like this can affect all of the communications in that frequency on the sun-ward side of the Earth during the flair.
Humans in space face a huge number of dangers from the Sun’s “weather.” You can see a partial list in the picture below.
Dr. Baker said one of the most likely and dangerous impacts of severe space weather events is on the power grid. Loss of power can have significant cascading impacts on a country. If you lose po
wer it can mean that oil and gas cannot be pumped, which affects transportation for people and things like food and medicine. Without power, sanitation facilities cannot provide drinkable water. Communication is dependent on power as well. Dr. Baker showed a complex inter-dependency chart.
For the U.S., this is a particularly poignant threat. Many of the major components of the U.S. power grid are more than 50 years old and rely on degraded transformers making the whole thing very susceptible to the solar flairs or other types of Sun weather. It’s also happened that power outage in one region can cascade to other regions leading to longer and more widespread power outages.
What do we do? One thing to do is keep track of what the Sun is doing in the same way we monitor the Earth’s weather. Another thing to do is make sure policy makers around the world know about space weather and the possible affects on an unprepared populace. Those are the first steps to protecting against the affects of major solar storms on the magnetosphere. Other steps will include protecting vulnerable systems, and complex computer modeling to predict (if possible) major storms, flairs or CMEs.
With that, Dr. Baker ended his presentations and took questions, including what may happen if the magnetic poles either flip or change to a quadra-pole, as the Earth has done in the past.
There’s a lot happening at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics here in Boulder. Find out more at their website by clicking HERE
Did you miss Dr. Baker’s program? You can watch it all on Boulder Rotary Club’s YouTube channel. (You can subscribe to get all our weekly programs too.) If you’d like to see it, just click HERE
And don’t miss the rest of the meeting- you can see it by clicking HERE
You can see our other programs and meetings in the BRC Program Archive. Click on the TV icon below, which will take you to the BRC Program Archive on our website. Please feel free to binge watch.
This article is a synopsis of the program presented to Boulder Rotary Club. The views and opinions expressed by the presenter do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, policy or position of the Boulder Rotary Club and its members.