A corona mass ejection (CME) associated with a solar flare on May 1, 2013. Image credit: NASA/SDO

Oct 10, 2014 UK space weather forecast station opens

Sen—This week the UK Met Office turned its attention toward making some long-range forecasts—really long-range forecasts. Not in terms of time, but in terms of distance from us. A new centre was officially opened this week that means the Met Office will be monitoring the Sun and making forecasts of the weather conditions in space thousands of kilometres above our heads.

They have moved on from looking at terrestrial winds that blow around our planet to monitoring the million-km-per-hour wind that blows out from the Sun’s atmosphere and engulfs the Earth and which drives space weather. Along with the solar wind there are also regular eruptions of magnetized plasma (coronal mass ejections or CMEs), bursts of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum (solar flares) and high-energy particles that the Sun also sends in our direction. These are the drivers of space weather.

Monitoring changes in our space environment has become important in recent years because we have become more and more aware that space weather affects much of the technology that modern society relies on. From our satellites, to our electricity networks and the way we communicate with each other. It’s a global issue too because stormy space weather can cause problems around the globe. In the US, monitoring space weather has been carried out for decades—they had to do this during Apollo for example to protect the health of the astronauts against high-energy particles. Today, space weather forecasting in the US is carried out by the Space Weather Prediction Center, in Boulder, Colorado, which sits within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Indeed, their new head of space weather, Dr. Thomas Berger, was at the Met Office this week to celebrate the opening of the new centre.

Out of all the risks space weather poses to our modern way of life it is the risk to the electricity grid that is perhaps the most worrying. Electricity underpins all aspects of our daily lives and this is something that the UK government recognises. In fact, a lesson had been learned in 2010 after a different natural hazard took us by surprise. This was the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which closed much of the air space over the UK and Europe for 6 days because of the cloud of ash it produced. People were stranded and many lives ground to a halt. It made the UK government start wondering whether they should be thinking about any other natural hazards and their attention turned to space weather.

Lessons have been learnt and today space weather features in fourth place on the National Risk Register (the government’s assessment of the likelihood and impact of civil emergencies) behind pandemic flu, coastal flooding and effusive volcanic eruptions. And National Grid, who distributes the UK’s power, has had space weather written into their daily activities for a long time. With all this in mind, we needed a way to monitor space weather and forecast the conditions ahead of time so that necessary precautions can be taken. That job has been given to the Met Office. 

The Met Office space weather forecasters use a range of data that is taken by a fleet of satellites as well as instruments on the Earth. Using this data the likelihood of a flare or an eruption can be calculated. When an eruption is seen they then work out if it will hit the Earth and when. And all the time the conditions in the solar wind flowing over us are monitored along with the state of the Earth’s magnetic field as stormy space weather is accompanied by disturbances to our magnetosphere. All this is combined together to let us know what the current space weather conditions are like and what the weather will be in the days ahead.

Starting in October 2014, the Met Office is monitoring the Sun and the conditions in space around us 24 hours a day, each and every day of the year. This is the outcome of four years of work and during this time a strong relationship has been developed with the US space weather centre. Visits have been made, information has been shared and forecasting techniques are now being developed in tandem.

The Met Office is collaborating across the UK too. Many university groups and research organisations that have been studying the Sun and the Earth’s response to its emissions are also sharing their knowledge with the Met Office. Protecting our technological infrastructure from hazardous space weather is a complex task and needs the expertise of many. But the focus is on the Met Office, as I think it should be. They have the experience in handling large volumes of data and they have expertise in running a variety of models that are used to make weather predictions. They are also able to disseminate the forecasts to those who need them in a clear and concise way. You can see the forecasts here: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/publicsector/emergencies/space-weather/forecasts