Understanding space weather

Understanding space weather

MARQUETTE — The weather outside is often a popular topic of conversation, but what about the weather outside of the earth?

“Space weather is an attempt to model what’s going on between the surface of the sun and the surface of the earth,” said Dr. David Donovan, Professor of Physics at Northern Michigan University, “so all those spaces in between, which is not as empty as people think.”

Finding out what’s going to happen in that not–so–empty space is of such importance that U.S. Senator Gary Peters recently introduced the proposed Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act — an act that intends to improve the nation’s ability to prepare for – and respond to – impacts of space weather events.

We already have models that help us to predict weather here on earth based on factors like temperature and humidity.

“About fifteen, twenty years ago, people wanted to do the same thing with space weather. They want to develop a model where they can put in the variables appropriate to space weather and try to figure out then what’s going to happen, especially with that ongoing plasma that’s constantly coming from the sun to the earth,” Donovan added.

Space weather events like coronal mass ejections — large clouds of plasma that occasionally erupt from the sun — can push back the earth’s protective magnetic field, endangering electronics by inducing excess electrical currents.

“These induced currents can cause problems in satellites that are in orbit,” said Donovan. “They can further cause problems with large conductors near the surface of the planet — namely pipelines and transmission wires.”

In today’s connected world, figuring out when these events occur could help prevent power outages and damage to sensitive infrastructure. That’s a big reason why scientists and legislators alike are hoping to shine a little more light on that great big light in the sky.