A Minute With...

Jonathan Makela, expert on 'space weather'

3/14/2012  5:00 pm

Solar flares, which erupt from the surface of the sun, occur periodically and can, at times, disrupt electronics on and above Earth. In the past few days, solar activity has spiked. Jonathan Makela, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois, studies such phenomena, known as space weather. He develops instruments that monitor disturbances in Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere – the ionized portion of the atmosphere that represents the boundary with space. Space weather has become important in recent years as it can affect many technological systems society relies on, such as satellite navigation, communication systems and the power grid. He was interviewed by News Bureau intern Cailun Gangi.

Is there anything unusual about the 2012 flares compared to past solar storms? How is the severity measured?

image of professor jonathan makelaThe sun goes through an 11-year “solar cycle” during which activity increases and decreases. Although we hadn’t seen any solar flares for several years until recently, this was because we were in the low part of the cycle. Now that we are approaching what is known as solar maximum, we are beginning to see the sun become active again. So, the flares we’ve seen in the past couple of days and months are not unusual for this part of the cycle. Although the recent flares were strong, categorized as X class flares, they would not have made the top five of the strongest flares during the last solar cycle.

Observations of the sun are made using a variety of techniques. For example, spectacular images are produced by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/). The classification of the severity of the flares, however, is made using another satellite, called GOES, which measures the flux of radiation coming from the sun. There are a few other satellites that monitor the sun, and they provide crucial observations that space scientists rely on to predict the effects of “space weather” on Earth.

How does “space weather” affect life on Earth?

Space weather affects life on Earth in several ways. The highly energetic particles launched from the sun during a flare can damage the sensitive electronics on satellites, causing temporary glitches or, worse, complete failure. Fortunately, Earth’s magnetic field protects us on the ground from a majority of this energy. However, there can still be increased radiation levels at higher latitudes, causing airlines to divert or delay long-haul flights that fly near the poles. There are also effects in Earth’s ionosphere, some 200 miles in altitude, that can cause communication and navigation signals, like those from GPS, to degrade. At the ground, electrical currents can be generated in pipelines and power lines, the later potentially leading to problems in the delivery of electricity to your home or business. As an example of this last effect, a solar storm in 1989 caused a failure in the power grid in Quebec, leading to widespread blackouts that lasted for hours and caused millions of dollars in damage.

On the bright side, these storms also push the aurora away from the poles toward the equator, allowing sky watchers living in warmer climates to experience the beauty of these majestic lights. During some of the larger solar storms of the last cycle, there were reports of aurora as far south as Florida!

With the recent reliability on technology how can we protect our digital lives from being affected?

Our increased reliance on technologies susceptible to space weather effects has led to a need to better forecast and predict these events. There is no real way to stop space weather from happening, just like there is no real way to stop hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. Mother Nature will do what she wants. What we can do is learn how to predict these events and create useful warning systems that the people in charge of affected technologies can use. Given enough warning, satellites and power grids can go in to “safe modes” in which they are less likely to be damaged; users relying on GPS can be warned that the system may be degraded. The Space Weather Prediction Center (http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/), part of the National Weather Service, provides these sort of alerts. However, compared to “traditional” weather predictive capabilities, such as hurricane forecasts, space weather forecasts are still in their infancy and there is much to be learned and improved upon.

In a worst-case scenario, how could an extreme solar flare affect our technology and us long-term?

In a worst-case scenario, the impacts could be devastating. Multiple satellites could be damaged beyond repair, leading to a loss of communication capabilities. If multiple GPS satellites were damaged, we could see a degradation of the many systems that rely on GPS. In the power grid, we could see large-scale blackouts and the loss of multiple transformers. The real difficulty comes with the fact that these sorts of systems – satellites and transformers – cannot quickly be replaced. There could be a long delay before replacements could be built and put into place at substantial financial cost. A recent report put out by the National Academy of Sciences estimated a worst-case scenario resulting in $1 to $2 trillion in related cost and a recovery time of several years. Thankfully, an event of the magnitude required to cause this scenario is thought to be a rarity. However, although not as dire, the types of storms we have been seeing as of late do have a real impact and we need to study them to better understand how to protect our technologies from a worst-case scenario.

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