In March of 2001 inhabitants of this planet experienced the worst space weather phenomenon since scientists began recording changes in the environment between the sun and the earth. For six weeks the sun storms were a daily occurrence as the earth’s nearest star blazed with dozen of solar flares and the giant orb was, “…spitting several blobs of superheated gas, known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, toward Earth” (Carlowicz ; Lopez, 2002, p. 1).
The phenomenon described above is now commonly known as “space weather” and this study will attempt to define this event. Moreover, this paper will try to shed light on its significance and why the need for a close monitoring of the same.
Before going any further there is a need to address the use of terms. The combination of two words, space and weather is obviously done for simplicity and yet oversimplification can also lead to confusion. By labeling the activities and changes occurring around the sun and its subsequent effects on the space outside the earth’s atmosphere as “space weather” begs for a comparison that can be misleading. This is because there is no way one can linked the earth’s weather to the events that are observable in outer space. And the reason is obvious there is no atmosphere in outer space similar to what one can find on earth.
But there is no other means of describing the activities occurring around the sun and its consequent effects on and around planet earth. Thus, for the sake of having a starting point for discussion and scientific inquiry one has to accept the label: space weather. Technically, this phenomenon has nothing in common with rain, wind, and lightning instead one can observe the sun emitting giant clouds of ionized gas (coronal mass ejections) which:
…contains hot plasma. These CMEs can move outward from the sun’s surface at speeds of 1000 km/s and can have embedded within them strong magnetic fields and highly energetic particle fluxes. The active sun is also the source of powerful solar flares and streams of high- speed solar wind flows. As these solar disturbances reach the earth and its vicinity, they can give rise to long-lasting and disruptive disturbances called geomagnetic storms (Scherer, 2005, p.6).
Instead of rain, hale, and snow one is introduced to names and scientific language normally found in science fiction books. It is indeed an interesting phenomenon that has escaped the attention of man simply because he does not know it exists. But with advances in technology and with the possible detrimental effects of space weather to planet earth man has become more and more interested in studying the said subject matter.
A more enlightening piece of information regarding this topic can be had by looking at the U.S. Department of Defense definition of space weather as the, “…adverse conditions on the sun, the solar wind, and in the earth’s magnetosphere, the ionosphere, and the thermosphere” (as cited in Goodman, 2005, p. 2). It is customary to see an added piece of information attached to the aforementioned explanation that states space weather is a condition, “…that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health” (Ondoh ; Marubashi, 2001, p. viii).
In the aforementioned space weather event recorded in 2001 Carlowicz and Lopez recorded the following negative effects:
radio communication failure
at least two U.S. military satellites malfunctioned
commercial airlines rerouting
electric companies need to reroute power supplies
several transformers tripped in New York and Nova Scotia (2002, p. 2).
For the most part of human history, man was unaware that there is such an important space weather phenomenon occurring over his head. With advanced technology man was able to notice the effect of space weather on planet earth. And with technology he is also able to monitor and study the said event.
The sun being the closest star to planet earth has been a major factor in the development of the earth. Now one can add space weather as one of its handiwork. The active sun can create activities that can be detrimental to this planet. At best it can be a spectacle to behold and at worst it can be a phenomenon that can easily disrupt communication and transportation. And an effective monitoring capability is needed to protect earth’s technological infrastructure from the unpredictable mood swings of the sun and its destructive solar flares.