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.

The Geospace Observatory (GO) Canada Initiative

As our dependence on technology continues to grow so does our need to monitor and forecast space weather. Because of its northern location, Canada is highly impacted by the effects of space weather, but this also gives Canada a front row seat to observe the near-Earth space environment (geospace) where space weather occurs.

The GO Canada initiative supports the academic community in gathering data on geospace, conducting scientific research, and transforming scientific knowledge into applications of benefit to Canadians.

GO Canada – Instruments and Data

Following an Announcement of Opportunity issued in May 2013, ten projects were selected from five Canadian Universities. The contribution agreements are with the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick as well as with Athabasca University. They represent a value of $6.2 million over 5 years and ensure the data are collected on a continual basis for open access by Canadian scientists and the public.

Here is the list of the projects that were selected to receive a contribution agreement from the CSA. These contribution agreements aim to support operation and collection of data from scientific instruments that probe space above Canada, to better understand the impact of space weather on Canadian infrastructure.

University Project name
University of Alberta CARISMA magnetometer array
University of Alberta CARISMA induction coil magnetometer array and next generation autonomous magnetometer array
Athabasca University Athabasca University THEMIS UCLA magnetometer network extension
University of Calgary Array for broadband observations of VLF/ELF emissions
University of Calgary GO for protons in the auroral zone
University of Calgary GO for imaging riometer information systems and riometer network
University of Calgary Auroral and redline auroral GO
University of New Brunswick Dynamics of the thermosphere neutral molecules
University of New Brunswick Arctic ionosphere monitoring digital ionosonde array and expanded GPS receiver array
University of Saskatchewan Sasktatoon, Inuvik, and Prince George SuperDARN radars

GO Canada – Science and Applications

Following an Announcement of Opportunity issued in June 2014, eight projects were selected from three Canadian Universities to receive a total of $1.43 million over 27 months. These grant agreements are with the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Waterloo. They will support scientific research that will use data from satellites and from networks of instruments located across Northern Canada. The scientific studies carried out will help to deepen our understanding of how space weather is generated. The project teams from these universities will develop computer-based models to study and monitor the phenomenon of space weather. Damage caused to satellites and infrastructure on the ground, interference with communication and navigation signals like GPS, and power grid failure could all be reduced if we could better predict space weather and take appropriate measure to lessen its impact; like turning off fragile systems on satellites; and finding innovative techniques to safeguard our space and ground assets.

The following projects perform scientific research aimed at understanding the processes that generate space weather and the development of applications that increase the resilience of Canadian infrastructure to the impact of space weather. More specifically, scientists at these universities will use data acquired by Canadian instruments already deployed across the Canadian North and above in space to study space weather and then create computer-based models for possible use by government and industry in mitigating its impact.

University Project name Description
University of Alberta Ground-based signatures of energy input by ULF waves to the ionosphere, thermosphere, and radiation belts Geomagnetic storms have an impact in space and on Earth as they can damage satellites orbiting near the Earth and are a threat to astronauts working in space. They also influence satellite navigation and communications and can seriously impair ground infrastructure and affect electric power networks. The team will use data from Canadian scientific instruments deployed on four satellites along with data from a series of ground instruments deployed across Canada to develop computer simulations of geomagnetic storms to better understand and mitigate the impact of space weather.
University of Alberta Improved space weather radiation belt radiation specification and forecasting using GO Canada data The project team will generate computer-based models to improve our understanding of the Earth's radiation belts. The radiation belts contain energetic particles which are hazardous to satellites. The team will use data from Canadian magnetometer arrays deployed across Canada and instruments on foreign scientific satellites to develop their computer simulations and target how particles in near-Earth space are remarkably accelerated to reach speeds close to the speed of light. The goal is to advance our understanding of how this harsh space radiation is created and thereby target improved space weather forecasting and better protection of satellites from severe space weather effects.
University of Alberta Substorm triggering and advances in large geomagnetically induced current (GIC) specification and forecasting using GO Canada data The project team will investigate the connection between disturbances in the Earth's magnetosphere and GICs on the ground. GICs affect conductors on the surface of the Earth, including damaging electrical power grids, increasing corrosion of pipelines and causing electrical transformer failures. The team will use data from Canadian magnetometer arrays deployed across Canada and instruments on Canadian and foreign scientific satellites to improve our understanding of the events leading to the generation of large GICs. A better understanding of this phenomenon will help us to reduce the impact of space weather on Canadian infrastructure.
University of Calgary A Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) auroral space weather product - quantifying auroral effects on global navigation systems The project team will develop a computer-based model to better understand the impact of space weather on GNSSs, and devices like GPSs. Space weather events such as aurora are known to interfere with radio signals broadcast by GPS satellites and can result in the loss of the GPS signal and greatly affect users. The team will use data from Canadian instrument arrays deployed across Canada that observe the ionosphere and aurora to develop and test their models to pursue their study.
University of Calgary Canadian geomagnetic variability - past present, and prediction The project team will develop computer-based models of magnetic field variability across Canada. Changes in the Earth's magnetic field can generate unwanted electrical currents in pipelines and electrical systems, as well as interfering with activities such as directional drilling for oil and gas. In order to better understand and address this issue, the team will use data from Canadian magnetometer arrays and other instruments deployed across Canada to develop and test their models.
University of Calgary GO Canada energetic particle precipitation model The project team will develop computer-based models simulating the high-energy electrons and other charged particles that rain down into the upper atmosphere over Canada. It is important to better understand this phenomenon as these particles interfere with radio communication, and affect the atmospheric chemistry which can influence our climate. The team will use data from a variety of Canadian instrument arrays deployed across Canada to develop and test their simulations.
University of Calgary Modeling substorm dipolarization and energetic particle precipitation in the ionosphere The project team will develop a computer-based model showing the changes in the Earth's magnetic field that create energized electrons and other charged particles during geomagnetic storms. This represents a serious threat to satellites as their electronic components are sensitive to these particles. The team will use data from Canadian instrument arrays deployed across Canada that observe the ionosphere and aurora to develop and test their simulations.
University of Waterloo Adaptive high-order magnetosphere simulation module for space weather The project team will develop a computer-based model of the Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere to help predict space weather. Energetic particles ejected by the Sun often trigger disturbances in the magnetosphere. It is very important to understand these disturbances as they impact activities on the ground, in the air, and in space. The team will use data from many Canadian instrument arrays deployed across Canada to develop and test their computer-based models.