Is space weather a thing? Sarah Gibson explains

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Friday, April 3, 2015

Just as a hurricane drives rain, wind, and floods, the space weather arising from a solar eruption can come in different forms. First comes the light from a solar flare, disrupting high-frequency radio communications at the Earth more or less immediately (eight minutes after leaving the Sun). Next comes particle radiation from the flare and CME-associated blast waves, creating hazards for astronaut health, satellite function, and aircraft electronic systems. Finally, the CME itself arrives -- the magnetized plasma that blows out from the Sun and takes 1-3 days to travel to the Earth.

Three images
A solar storm, aurora from space, and aurora on Earth. Image credit NASA.

Interactions of the CME with the Earth's magnetic fields creates colorful aurorae at high latitudes. More ominously, it can drive disturbances in the Earth's upper ionized atmosphere (the ionosphere) that interfere with global navigation and communication systems, and can endanger electrical power grids through geomagnetically-induced currents (GICs). According to the report, the combined impacts of even "ordinary" space weather storms cost the global economy tens of billions of dollars each year.

We are affected by the choices made on a national and international level about how to prevent and mitigate damage to the technology you depend on (to read this blog, for example). Therefore, the advice I give you is not to go out and invest in a pair of lead-lined underpants, but to stay informed about space weather and support sensible science policy.

Sarah Gibson explains on HuffPo: