Copyright: Alexander Erdbeer

Space weather is a threat, but don’t panic

This week, our writer Alaina Levine reports for EuroScientist from the AAAS conference in Washington DC, USA.

Space weather can happen at any time, said Juha-Pekka Luntama of the European Space Agency (ESA) this week in the Washington, DC annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is defined as “the conditions on the sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere that can influence performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and endanger human life and health.” Just last week, solar flares caused some airlines to re-route their arctic flights away from the poles to avoid possible radio disruption. There was also the recent “science” movie “Knowing”, which posits that a solar flare so big and powerful, with an extremely long trajectory (93 million miles to be exact), could roar out of the sun and incinerate us into bits of nanodust.

But “don’t panic,” said Stephan Lechner, of the European Commission, JRC Institute for Protection and Security of the Citizen, half-joking that “I always wanted to say that in a security talk.” While we are far from understanding all the implications of stormy space weather, any overreaction could make the human-related outcomes worse, he continued. “Please don’t leave the room and tell everyone that space weather will kill us tomorrow.”

Ahem.

The propensity for riotous behavior aside (after all, a major solar wind could knock out our GPS systems, just to start), there are already significant transatlantic collaborations seeking to identify, catalog, analyze and prepare for extreme space weather and its consequences. European agencies such as JRC, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, the ESA, and the UK Government Office of Science are regularly sharing information and strategies with American partners such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ensure that we have most up-to-date information concerning space weather and its severity, and to develop possible actions we can take to prepare for the worst case scenario. Ten years ago, when the last solar max occurred, “the world was a different place,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator. We had fewer mobiles, and there were smaller numbers of airplanes flying in proximity to the poles. But with a solar cycle taking an average 11 years, we are due for another solar max in the blink of an eye.

“Space weather should be everyone’s business,” she argued. “This is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when and how big. It behooves us to be smart and prepare.” Sir John Beddington, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Britain, echoed this sentiment. “Our vulnerability has increased enormously due to the way we have changed our communications systems.” As a consequence of this, we have to improve our predictions and predictive technology, and know how to characterise when space weather will arrive so we can take mitigating action, he continued. This could involve taking certain transformers off-line. We may end up with black-outs that could last weeks, the panel stated, but hey, at least we’d still have a rare, and not well-done, Earth.

Featured image credit: Alexander Erdbeer via Shutterstock

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Alaina Levine

Alaina G. Levine is a noted science careers consultant, speaker, and science writer. She is President of Quantum Success Solutions, a leadership training enterprise with a focus on advancing the professional development expertise of scientists and engineers, and she has been advising emerging and established scientists and engineers about their careers for over a decade. The author of over 100 articles pertaining to science, science careers and business in such publications as Science, Nature, Scientific American Online and New Scientist, Levine also pens the Profiles in Versatility career column for the American Physical Society's publication, APS News.
Alaina Levine

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