Often, when we think of weather, we think of moisture, atmospheric pressure, temperature and other qualifiers. However, many of these conditions don’t exist in the vacuum of space. The key components of space weather include electromagnetic energy (ie. light, x-rays), magnetic fields, and plasma – ionized or charged atomic particles. Below are some of the most prominent space weather phenomenon and some resources that you can use to monitor these events.
Sunspots are cooler, darker areas on the sun’s surface. They are caused by intense magnetic activity. They are a sign of possible solar flares, coronal mass ejections, etc. They tend to cluster in bands just above and below the equator. Scientists have been measuring sunspots for a long time now. They’ve noticed that the sun will go through cycles of increasing and decreasing numbers of sunspots. They tend to move around an 11 year cycle – also known as a solar cycle. When the sun reaches the end of solar cycle, new sunspots will appear near the equator. Sunspots tend to appear in high latitudes when it is starting a new cycle. However, many times, the cycles can overlap, causing some confusion. Solar winds however, are the continuous flow of charged particles from the sun that permeates the solar system.
We have heard the term solar flare, but what exactly does this mean? This is a brief eruption of intense high-energy radiation from the sun’s surface. When magnetic field lines cross and reconnect, energy explodes outward with a force exceeding that of millions of hydrogen bombs. There are different magnitudes of solar flares, some of which have a low impact on Earth, while others could have a detrimental impact on Earth. X-Class solar flares have the largest impact on Earth. They cause radiation storms that can cause radio blackouts. These storms typically hit the upper atmosphere. Solar flares can also be classified by M-class (medium) and C-class (low) flares.
So, why don’t we ever feel some of the impacts of these flares? The Earth’s atmosphere usually protects us from solar flares by absorbing the x-rays. Usually, when this occurs, it causes the Earth’s ionosphere to expand due to heat and energy. This can affect radios and satellite communication. On some occasions, it can cause an increased amount of friction on satellites and pull them back to earth. Affects on radios and satellite communication systems can be a big problem for many places in the country, as this prevents not only broken communication with emergency services, but for businesses and the like. How do these solar storms effect us as humans? Our modern, technologically complex systems – including communications, transportation, and electrical power systems – can be disrupted and damaged by space weather storms. Exposure to radiation can threaten astronauts and commercial air travelers alike, and has affected the evolution of life on Earth. Space weather probably alters the weather and climate on our planet, though we don’t yet have a precise understanding of those influences.
Changes in the ionosphere alter long-distance radio signals and Global Position Systems (GPS). Strong magnetic fields can diminish the accuracy of compasses, disrupt magnetic prospecting, and even cause homing pigeons to go astray. The same magnetic fields can induce electrical currents at ground level that can destroy electrical power distribution grids, interrupt telegraphs, and even increase corrosion in pipelines. There are a wide variety of effects that Space Weather exerts on the electricity of the brain, heart and central nervous system inside of our own bodies. Solar and geomagnetic activity can affect human health and behavior, including social behavior and unrest around the world. Exposure to any amount of radiation, can have a negative effect on humans, even animals.
Current Solar Weather:
(Jul 9 1058UTC) A solar wind shockwave impacted earth last night – part of the coronal hole stream still impacting earth now. It drove low level geomagnetic storm conditions which are also continuing this morning. We also saw an M class solar flare and numerous C class events from the lone sunspot group – more are expected today.
To keep up to date with Solar weather alerts, visit: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/communities/space-weather-enthusiasts