Our predictions of solar storms have not been very accurate until now—here's why

Our predictions of solar storms have not been very accurate until now – here's why
Ain’t half hot: but where’s it heading? Credit: Naeblys

When a space hurricane was unleashed from the sun on January 7 2014, space-weather centres around the world sent out warnings. The hurricane was heading directly for Earth and was predicted to produce a strong geomagnetic storm. But then an unexpected thing happened: the storm bypassed Earth and headed for Mars instead. It confirmed that our techniques for predicting such events are not as accurate as we would like. I am one of the co-authors of a new paper that provides an insight into why the predictions were wrong and what we can do about this in future.

Space storms are a regular part of our sun's activity. These so-called coronal mass ejections are a by-product of dramatic events called solar flares. They happen in active regions of the sun where a great amount of energy is built up in the form of a tangled magnetic field. This acts like a rubber band that has been twisted too far, snapping as it releases its stored energy.

The geomagnetic storms that occur when these ejections hit Earth can have dramatic consequences. Beautiful auroras in the night sky might be sights to behold, but equally GPS and telecommunication systems that rely on satellites can be disrupted, while radio black-outs can make it necessary to re-route air travel. In the worst scenarios, there can be strong surges of electrical currents that cannot be supported by national electric grids. This can lead to major power outages, such as the one experienced by Montreal and the Quebec region in Canada in March 1989.

Our findings

The progress of the January 2014 solar flare in the sun's atmosphere was monitored by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a NASA mission launched in 2010 dedicated to our hosting star. Our research team, which was lead by Dr Christian Möstl from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, analysed the regions surrounding the storm's original location on the sun.

We found that the area surrounding it on one side was another intensely active region with a strong magnetic field, while the other side was occupied by a weak magnetic field called a "coronal hole". The team concluded that the former strong field pushed the erupting storm away, channelling it into the weak field path and away from its original route.

The flare behind the storm

Once the storm was on its way out into space, it was then recorded by several space probes, including the Advanced Composition Explorer in Earth's orbit and the Curiosity Rover on Mars. In particular, the Martian robot reported a decrease in the cosmic rays in its vicinity, the so-called Forbush effect. This phenomenon takes place when the of the solar cloud deflects the energetic particles, originating from outer space, which constantly bombard a planet.

This data helped our team to build a model to reproduce the evolution of the solar cloud in space, and hence its arrival times, both at Earth and at the red planet. This should improve the models that scientists use for making real-time forecasts of space weather, such as those used by the UK MET Office space weather prediction centre, which opened in October 2014.

In short, we reached two conclusions. For accurate forecasts, we will have to monitor the surroundings of the point of origin of the solar activity in future, since these appear to strongly dictate how coronal mass ejections develop. This will ultimately tell us whether a will hit the Earth, at which angle and with what intensity.

Second, it is highly important that we continue to improve our models for describing how evolve once they leave the sun. This is what allows us to predict their arrival times at Earth, enabling national authorities to prepare for their consequences as accurately as possible. To do this, much more research is still required into areas such as the mechanisms underlying the ejection of solar storms, how they evolve in and how they interact with a planet's natural magnetic shields. That is a key challenge for my field in the coming months and years.

Explore further

Protecting Earth from space weather

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
The Conversation

Citation: Our predictions of solar storms have not been very accurate until now—here's why (2015, June 2) retrieved 23 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-solar-storms-accurate.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 02, 2015
Our predictions of solar storms have not been very accurate until now—here's why

Because their understanding of the plasma physics involved are pathetically misleading.

Jun 03, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 03, 2015
Our predictions of solar storms have not been very accurate until now—here's why

Because their understanding of the plasma physics involved are pathetically misleading.

So who should they listen to? That old EU favourite Anthony Perratt, maybe? The one whose Los Alamos National Laboratory website states: "The Plasma Universe and Plasma
Cosmology have no ties to the anti-science blogsites of the holoscience 'electric universe'?
Or Alfven? Either way, at least those two, as wrong as they were about some things, never believed in the EU electric sun rubbish, and always accepted nuclear fusion as its power source.

Jun 04, 2015
Hey Vivo, the bible was written by men as a tool to control weak minded people like the cattle we are. To belive the bible is the word of God exemplifies foolishness considering the vast amounts of historical data on the subject. Maybe try reading another book one and a while.

Jonesdave lets talk about rubbish my good man. Eddington(1926)The Internal Constitution of the stars, is the basis for modern theory. This was at a time whe we could not see beyond the visible spectra. Almost fifty years later Alfven was proven correct but electrical nature of stars has never been properly considered because of the dominant cultures priori based in assumption. This is why observational reality has scientists at the top of their field like Eugene N Parker saying "..sun exhibits a variety of phenomena that defy contemporary theoretical understanding..." He goes on to list seven major macro physical phenomena exhibited. They ought to falsify the model but instead ad hoc explanations prop it up.

Jun 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 05, 2015
Nope, I harmonize with the infinite and the ego of man is the false Messiah. God of man is no God at all. The wishfulness is in the mirror, and the signs are your outward projection. Like the Captain your truth is just another lie to me. Though, I appreciate both your hearts.

Jun 06, 2015
Reading the article and comments, all I can say is there is still more to theorize and predict the effects of space weather on earth, and I hope we get better at it. I don't hope to see another Carrington event in my lifetime, without a better understanding of it, a strategy to deal with it, and some time to get ready for it.

Jun 08, 2015
Post in wrong thread. Moved by me. Thanks.

Jun 08, 2015

If this statement is true, the EU should have pounced on it as the particles travelling along these "field lines" would be evidence of a current connecting the sun with interstellar space. Charged particles wouldn't stray from those field lines, and there wouldn't be an acceleration boundary.

They did, several years ago, except without the "open field lines" and other such pseudoscience.


Fair enough. In the meantime you'll quit PO? Or simply write comments on things other than astrophysics?

Great, another one who prefers censorship over discussion.

Jun 09, 2015
Hi JeanTate. :)

Disclaimer: I'm 65 yrs old, atheist since age 9, and since then scrupulously independent scientist/researcher across all science; I 'belong' to no group/gang of any kind, as I value highly my intentional longtime independence from herd/peer pressure/mentality; I've nothing to do with any EU/other theory/group. I comment from impartial perspective; from 'science side' not any/either 'gang side'. So...

Re 'pseudo-science', it has become obvious over recent years that BBang etc hypotheses have become treated as 'fait accompli' by professional physicist/astronomers/journalists. This can be simply demonstrated by the fact that relevant articles/papers start with some form of inbuilt bias/assumptions and subsequently 'interpreted'; usually starting with something like (paraphrasing): "Since the Big Bang..." or "We know that the Big Bang created...", which PRESUPPOSES those hypotheses as 'fact'.

That's how any (including BICEP2) pseudoscience/claims can happen.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more