ARLINGTON - Scientists know space weather
caused by solar flares and other phenomenon holds the potential to disable
electrical grids and disrupt the use of the global positioning system (GPS)
that everyone from farmers to oil well drillers depend on. Now, physicists at
The University of Texas at Arlington are working with others around the country
to develop computer models that can issue warnings of such events available one
to four days before their arrival.
UT Arlington is one of 11 member
institutions that make up the Center for
Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), a Science and Technology Center
funded by the National Science Foundation that transitioned its first space
weather forecasting model from research to operations earlier this year. CISM,
which is headquartered at Boston University, was established in 2002 with the
goal of creating a set of physics-based numerical simulation models that
describe the space environment from the Sun to the Earth.
“Space weather is becoming more
and more important to our technological and space-based civilization, so the
ability to predict space weather events will be as important as the ability to
predict major hurricanes,” said Ramon Lopez, a UT Arlington professor of
physics who is also co-investigator on the CISM. Lopez brought the project to
UT Arlington when he came to the College of
Science in 2007.
Solar phenomena like coronal
mass ejections and solar flares can produce enormous changes in the near-Earth
space environment and those changes are what make up space weather. Earth’s
magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, protects us from
most of these changes, but energy released by the Sun in solar storms can pass
through and have potentially disastrous effects on our technology.
The aurora or “northern lights” is
the most well known phenomenon caused by solar energy reaching the upper
atmosphere of the Earth. But increased solar activity can have other effects,
such as disrupting satellite communication systems, electrical transmission
systems and navigational systems. Even oil and gas pipelines can be affected by
rapidly fluctuating geomagnetic fields, which induce electric currents in the
pipes and cause them to corrode much faster than expected.
Scientists hope that giving the
operators of important systems such as electrical grids and GPS warning of an
impending disruption could help minimize damage and cost. To accomplish that
goal, CISM developed models for the four regions where space weather takes
place: the region immediately around the sun, the region between the sun and
earth, the earth’s magnetosphere and the ionosphere or upper atmosphere of the
CISM works in cooperation with the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which
is part of the National Weather Service. Other partners include NASA, the Air
Force Research Laboratory, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications
and the National Computational Science Alliance.
UT Arlington’s role has been in the validation of the magnetospheric and ionospheric models,
which includes both understanding the physics of the geospace environment as well
as confirming model results using real data collected by NASA and Air Force
satellites, Lopez said. UT Arlington students are involved in that
work and undergraduates have been co-authors on peer-reviewed scientific papers
related to space weather.
also co-director for diversity at the CISM.
"It's very exciting to pioneer a path from
research to operations in space weather," CISM’s director Jeffrey Hughes
said in a January announcement from the National Science Foundation. "The
science is having a real impact on the practical problem of predicting when
'solar storms' will affect us here on Earth."
Participation in the space weather monitoring
collaboration is one of the innovative projects under way at The University of
Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive research institution of 33,800 students in
the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.
The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.