Space Weather over Canada

(Credit: NASA)

When most people hear the words "weather forecast", they expect to hear about clouds, rain, snow, or winds.

But now, Canadian scientists are working to provide another kind of forecast—a space weather forecast that will warn about changes in the highest reaches of the Earth's atmosphere where a flood of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles pour down from space.

The radiation from the Sun and particles from space interact in complex ways with both the upper atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field, causing a range of effects including the auroras and storms in space that can damage satellites and spacecraft, disrupt communications and navigation around the world, and damage power networks on the ground.

Events like these make space weather of great economic as well as scientific importance, to Canada and the whole world.

In 1989, a storm in space 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. Since then, many other satellites have malfunctioned, interrupting media and cell phone services, and global positioning system (GPS) navigation systems.

In 2012, an extremely powerful burst from the Sun, observed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) science satellites "STEREO", thankfully missed the Earth. Had this burst, called a "coronal mass ejection", occurred just a week earlier, the Earth would likely have been heavily impacted, with disrupted power services, communications and GPS around the globe, resulting in billions of dollars in damage. The last time such a burst pounded Earth was in 1859: the leading technology at the time was the telegraph, and it behaved erratically, even when powered off, while the aurora was seen as far south as the Caribbean.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is working with Natural Resources Canada to improve forecasting of space weather. Natural Resources Canada operates the Canadian Space Weather Forecast Centre.  It is a Regional Warning Centre of the International Space Environment Service and contributes to the World Meteorological Organization. Scientists in Canadian universities design and operate instruments that gather data that is required to improve our understanding of the causes and processes of space weather.

When they know that severe space weather is coming, there are things that industries can do to reduce their vulnerability. Airlines can divert or cancel flights, power companies can adjust their electrical grids, and navigation services can issue alerts. Satellite operators can put their spacecraft into low-power safe modes and shut down critical or vulnerable components.

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