We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A Flare for Prediction

Magnetic storms touched off by the sun disrupt communications on earth, but John Foster’s research at Haystack Observatory will help mitigate those effects in the future.

On the day before Halloween last year, 20,000 homes in the city of Malm, Sweden, lost power. Authorities attributed the blackout to a surge of current in the power lines. The culprit, apparently, was a huge storm of cosmic origin striking the earth. A series of such storms in October and November forced airlines to reroute polar flights, shut down two Japanese satellites, and sent the aurora borealis dancing in skies as far south as Texas and Arizona.

Magnetic storms happen about twice a year, when eruptions on the surface of the sun send streams of highly charged gas, known as coronal mass ejections, hurtling toward Earth at six million to eight million kilometers per hour. The first three to six hours of a storm-a storm can last two or three days-are the most intense, as the ejections disrupt Earth’s atmosphere and cause communication trouble for the ever increasing numbers of satellites, radios, and cell phones in constant use. “The amount of our technologies that are affected has been growing and growing,” says Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University.

The chances for a severe storm are greatest during the solar maximum, a period of heightened sunspot activity that recurs every 11 years. The last solar max occurred in 2000, so another one isn’t due until 2011. But in October and November of last year, conditions in the sun’s turbulent atmosphere brought about the solar equivalent of a late-season blizzard, and Earth experienced some unusually strong magnetic storms.

Alerted to the danger by a spacecraft monitoring the sun, John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, MA, began tracking the storms’ activity with the observatory’s two radar dishes dedicated to upper-atmospheric research. He and other atmospheric scientists have been trying to understand how the disturbances evolve, and how activity on the sun eventually affects the space environment around Earth. MIT observations have already helped show, for the first time, how charged particles belonging to Earth’s upper atmosphere are redistributed during a solar storm. Computer models calculate the particles’ behavior based on multiple variables, including the influence of the solar wind and the orientation of the sun’s magnetic field.

Foster has also been gathering data on these and other variables to take the research further. He has a theory that the intensity of a storm’s effect on the earth can be predicted in part by what time of day it strikes the planet. The episode recorded that night in October supported his argument, and if his theory proves right, it can help improve space weather forecasts. That could give industry and government officials plenty of notice to minimize the effects of the disruptions. “The work that he is doing is central to the observational side of our understanding of magnetic storms,” says Kile Baker, program director for magnetospheric physics at the National Science Foundation, which underwrites some of Foster’s research.

Magnetic Apple Peeler

As anyone who’s ever used a compass knows, the earth is a magnet with north and south poles. It’s surrounded by invisible lines of magnetic force that bulge outward from either side of the planet. When the charged gas of a coronal mass ejection hits the planet’s magnetic field, the lines of magnetism become distorted. Electric fields produced by the distortion pull on the ionosphere, the charged layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere that makes long-distance radio communication possible and through which satellite transmissions must pass. A slice of the ionosphere peels off and streams upward, creating a structure of ions and electrons known as a plume. Imagine the earth is a giant spinning apple, Foster says, with the outer ionosphere as its peel. The ejection comes in like a giant parer, slicing off a strip of ionosphere as the earth rotates beneath it. The peel rises over the Caribbean and spreads northwest over North America as the world turns. Some of the material is lost to space, but much of it gets trapped by Earth’s magnetic field and redistributed.

Like a squall in a snowstorm, the plume that rises over the U.S. can cause the worst problems because, says Foster, “It’s in a region of space where it really should not be.” The tempest can break up high-frequency signals used by the military or distort satellite transmissions beaming through the ionosphere. That includes Global Positioning System satellites, and intercontinental airline flights whose positions can’t be tracked accurately have to fly farther apart. “These are all the nasty space weather consequences of this magnetic apple peeler,” Foster says.

His efforts to understand the plume rely in large part on Haystack’s two radar dishes dedicated to ionospheric studies: a 68-meter fixed dish that stares straight up and a moveable 46-meter dish that Foster says is probably the world’s largest steerable radar antenna. There are six major antennas in all, including a research radio antenna that takes soundings of the ionosphere, much as sonar on a ship takes soundings of the ocean floor. A group of optical instruments measures temperature and motion in the atmosphere.

Foster uses these instruments, measurements of signal distortions from GPS receivers scattered across the globe, and images taken by satellites in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program to create a map of the activity of electrons and ions in the upper atmosphere. The two dishes send radar pulses out into the atmosphere. The pulses strike the electrons in the ionosphere and are reflected. With proper processing, Foster’s team can determine the density of electrons at a given point in space, as well as whether they’re part of hydrogen, oxygen, or helium plasmas, how hot they are, and which direction they’re moving. In essence, the researchers can create a map of the upper atmosphere, showing the shifting shape of the plume. They can measure structures about 50 kilometers long and chart the variations in electron density throughout the visible ionosphere.

From this data, Foster produces computer animations that show what the various instruments see during a magnetic storm. One animation displays two maps of North America side by side, accompanied by a tiny clock. A magnetic storm progresses across each screen-one that occurred Nov. 20, 2003, and the other from two years earlier, April 11, 2001. Blobs of blue, yellow, and red indicate the different densities of electrons and ions in the atmosphere. As the clock reaches about 7:00 p.m. Greenwich mean time, or 2:00 p.m. eastern standard time, both storms produce a rust-colored plume over the Caribbean that moves northwest. Two and a half years apart, the storms are remarkably similar in appearance and behavior.

“These events are really repeatable and not at all random,” Foster says. “It happens like this consistently during every storm.”

Additional evidence from a magnetic storm that struck on March 31, 2001, helped corroborate the consistency of the plume phenomenon, showing that it occurred at a specific place over the earth at a specific time. During that storm, Foster’s team was pointing the radar dishes upward to gather data. Meanwhile, NASA’s IMAGE satellite was flying overhead, looking down on the same events. IMAGE was the first satellite to record such a plume of plasma evolving, and its data matched that which Foster’s team collected separately.

The formation of the plume, Foster believes, is abetted by a defect in the earth’s magnetic field, an area called the south Atlantic anomaly, centered 500 to 1,000 kilometers southeast of Brazil, where the magnetic field is about 30 percent weaker than everywhere else on the planet. If a storm reaches the planet just after the anomaly is directly facing the sun-early afternoons, eastern standard time-the effects of the storm are the most intense. Other, smaller plumes do happen elsewhere on the planet, but the largest, most disruptive ones occur over North America.

Storm Warning

Other researchers have tracked plumes over the years, but the MIT observations are the first to show how electrons and ions spread to other parts of the atmosphere during a solar storm, an important component of anticipating the behavior and severity of magnetic storms. To this end, the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling is using Foster’s data and explanations to improve storm models. Its goal is to provide information so that officials can be ready to make adjustments when a storm hits. “You can find alternate routes to get your communications or know you have to leave more tolerances for your navigation,” Hughes says. “You might not get around it, but you know you have to react to it.”

Foster is furthering his own efforts by studying the path of the plume. Observers in Greenland and Scandinavia have seen plumes in their skies, but Foster now believes that they’re seeing the same North American plume crossing the North Pole and moving over Europe. That means when observers see the plume forming in the Caribbean in early afternoon, they know there will be disturbances in Europe around midnight. “It’s kind of neat if he’s now seen it going over the pole,” says Hughes.

Foster hopes to determine whether the severity of a plume can be correlated with aspects of a solar sunburst. Since sunspots appear on the sun’s surface days before a coronal mass ejection makes contact with Earth, scientists could have the means to provide ample warning about a storm and its intensity.

That sort of observation is part of the long, slow process of building up enough data to make statistically accurate models. In 10 years, Foster says, scientists will be able to predict the course of big storms and the specific effects they will have on human technologies.

“We need to see a thousand cases, and we need to base what we say on the results, and we’re just now getting to that point,” Foster says.

Here’s one prediction: the next big test of how Foster’s work has improved scientists’ ability to predict space weather will come in 2011, the next solar maximum, when plenty of sunspots are likely to flare again.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.
  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.