- News Home
5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
Since arriving on the island of Guam in the 1940s, the brown tree snake ( Boiga irregularis ) has extirpated native...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
- About Us
Space Weather Forecasters Get Serious
20 October 2011 4:45 pm
It took a while, but space physicists who predict immense balls of solar debris smashing into Earth have finally caught up with their brethren who forecast terrestrial weather. Rather than simply relying on rules of thumb, space weather forecasters have begun running a computer model that actually simulates the development of conditions between the sun and Earth. They're following the lead of atmospheric weather forecasters, who have been using computer models since the 1960s. Warnings of when solar storms will strike Earth are already much improved.
The better the warning of major solar storms, the better earthlings can prepare for the consequences, which can include electrically fried satellites, degraded GPS navigation, and widespread blackouts. The culprit is a magnetic bubble of tens of millions of tons of protons and the like blown off the sun at several million kilometers per hour. It might seem easy enough to keep track of something that big, but observation platforms between the sun and Earth are few and far between. And the choppy sea of magnetic fields and charged particles that the ejected bubbles plow through can slow and deflect the bubbles.
Drawing on the typical behavior of previous bubbles, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, had been predicting the arrival of CMEs at Earth with an accuracy of plus or minus 15 hours. They would usually say which day a storm might strike but not much more.
The new forecasting system, developed by a consortium of 11 institutions led by Boston University and refined by SWPC, has been in routine operation since the beginning of the month. It includes a computer simulation that calculates how a particular CME will move out from the sun and through the evolving interplanetary "weather" on its way to Earth. One model component handles a particular CME moving from the sun's surface into interplanetary space, and another simulates its progress in three dimensions out to Earth's orbit and beyond.
The new model components allowed SWPC forecasters to shrink their timing error from 15 hours to 6 hours. "From a space weather standpoint, that's a pretty big deal," says space physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "The forecast model gives some confidence in predictions" for the vicinity of Earth.
Not that forecasts couldn't use a lot more improvement. For instance, there's no sign as yet that the advent of physics-based forecasting will improve predictions of the power of a solar storm inside Earth's magnetic cocoon where it matters, notes forecaster Douglas Biesecker of SWPC. To anticipate that, researchers will have to understand much more about the innards of CMEs.