This month, for the first time, scientists have started using a new geospace forecast model that can give unique data for each 900 km2 (350 mi2) plot of Earth, up to 45 minutes before a solar storm hits. The model provides short-term guidance of the state of Earth’s magnetosphere and as such represents a giant step forward in space weather forecasting. Experimental products are live and available to decision makers and the general public.
Until now, scientists knew when the storm was headed toward Earth, but it was impossible to predict where on Earth it will hit hardest. This meant that utility companies and satellite operators, for example, couldn't always limit damage to their systems by shutting off key components.
This changed on October 5, 2016 when NOAA's SWPC deployed several new experimental products based on the new geospace model developed by researchers at the University of Michigan and Rice University.
The model provides short-term guidance of the state of Earth’s magnetosphere using DSCOVR's real-time solar wind data and F10.7, a solar EUV proxy, as input.
It pulls together three components that researchers worked for a quarter century to develop and meld: a "magnetohydrodynamic" model that simulates effects on the Earth from electric and magnetic fields, an ionosphere model that represents aspects of the top layer of the Earth's atmosphere, and a "ring current" model that gives insights into a region of hot particles that encircles the planet. Scientists at U-M developed the first two and at Rice, the ring current model.
Multiple product web pages are now available at the SWPC's website, including:
The Global Activity Plot provides recent history of geomagnetic activity along with a short-term (15 - 45 minutes) prediction of upcoming activity.
The Equatorial and Meridional Views of the Earth's magnetosphere show graphical output for three different plasma parameters (velocity, density, and pressure). These graphic cut planes of the magnetosphere are useful for providing a large-scale, global context of geomagnetic activity in the near-Earth environment.
The Ground Perturbation Maps display the gridded magnetic variations on a five by five-degree global grid. These maps are useful for providing regional disturbance predictions that can be used by power grid operators to determine if disturbances are likely to have impacts at their general location.
"All three pages are currently hosted on our experimental products pages for customer evaluation before being promoted formally to operations. Promotion to operations is planned for early 2017. Comments on this new model and its products can be provided at SWPC's feedback page," the center said.
Scientists have estimated an up to 12% chance that Earth could be hit with an extreme solar storm in the next decade.
In 2012, a Carrington-scale ejection crossed Earth's orbit and missed us by a week. Since that time, important measures have been taken. In June 2014, the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission began requiring utilities to prepare for solar storms. And in 2015, the White House released a Space Weather Action Plan.
Extreme space weather can happen at any time, but historically the strongest storms tend to hit during the declining phase of the Sun's 22-year activity cycle.
"The largest storms occur after solar maximum, so we are in the most dangerous period right now," said Tamas Gombosi, the Konstantin I. Gringauz Distinguished University Professor of Space Science and the Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering at U-M.
Good timing for the new model.
Featured image: NASA