Canadian Geospace Monitoring
When most people hear the words "weather forecast", they expect to hear something about clouds, rain, snow or winds.
But now, Canadian scientists are working to provide another kind of forecast—a space weather forecast that will predict turbulent events in the highest reaches of the Earth's atmosphere where it meets a flood of electromagnetic radiation and electrically charged particles.
The solar radiation and particles interact in complex ways with both the upper atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field, causing a range of effects including the auroras and space storms that can damage satellites and spacecraft, disrupt communications around the world and overload power networks on the ground.
Events like these make this vast and often tumultuous area of geospace of great economic as well as scientific importance.
"There are billions dollars of space assets in that region of space," said John Manuel, a program scientist with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), one of the agencies funding the effort to improve forecasting of space weather. "When the weather there is rough, those assets can be damaged and sometimes destroyed."
In 1989, a space storm knocked out Hydro Quebec's electrical grid, causing a nine-hour blackout and multi-million-dollar losses. In 1994, two Canadian communications satellites, Anik E-1 and E-2, were disabled by space storms at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Many other satellites have malfunctioned, interrupting media services and cell phone and Global positioning system (GPS) navigation systems.
Manuel noted that high-flying aircraft, especially those that follow polar routes, are also affected by space weather and the higher levels of radiation it can create.
"There are an increasing number of flights across the North Pole and those regions are less protected from disturbances in space," said Manuel.
The CSA is working with Natural Resources Canada to improve the prediction of space weather events.
"Just as we have a meteorology service that monitors the weather and climate to make forecasts so that people can prepare themselves for whatever's coming, we have the beginnings of a space weather forecast service on the way."
Natural Resources Canada has set up Space Weather Canada as a regional warning centre of the International Space Environment Service.
The ability to predict space weather events depends on the travel time between the sun and Earth. Solar radiation reaches Earth in just a few minutes, and some charged particles also arrive quickly, but others can take several days. A coronal mass ejection, for example, is "slower moving," said Manuel.
"These are blasts of billions of tonnes of ionized gas ejected by the sun during active periods. If the Earth is in the way of one of those, it can cause massive disturbances in the magnetic field. They take a few days to arrive, so if we know they're coming, space weather forecasters can issue warnings to airlines, satellite operators and hydroelectric operators so they can prepare themselves."
There are things these industries can do to reduce their vulnerability. Airlines can divert or cancel flights and power companies can make adjustments to their electricity grids. Satellite operators can put their spacecraft into low-power safe modes and shut down critical or vulnerable components.
Manuel said Canada is in a unique position to study space weather because it is the country with the largest landmass beneath the auroras and geomagnetic disturbances in the ionosphere, the region at the top of the atmosphere containing electrically charged particles where the auroras are located.
"By virtue of its location, Canada has a front-row seat. The auroras are shifted further south over Canada than any other country and this makes it easy for us to put arrays of instruments underneath them."
For many years, Canada has used this geographic advantage to study solar-terrestrial interactions in the ionosphere and has become a world leader in this field. Now it is enhancing this infrastructure with new instruments deployed in new ways, creating an even more extensive system for monitoring and studying geospace. This system, called Canadian Geospace Monitoring (CGSM), is operated by Canadian universities and government laboratories, each contributing their expertise to the system. The result is in many ways more than the sum of these individual contributions and includes state-of-the art instruments and facilities:
"Our understanding of how geospace works is still rudimentary, not much better than our understanding of weather on Earth a century ago," said Manuel. He noted that accurate weather forecasting became possible only when satellites could look down on the Earth and see entire weather systems. "The CGSM system is poised to do the same for space weather by making it possible to remote-sense space far above Canada in the same way that weather satellites currently remote-sense our atmosphere."
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