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Lopez, physics students putting focus on space weather

Ramon Lopez
Ramon Lopez

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 UT 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, 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 Earth.

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.

Lopez is 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."