The Met Office will get better warnings of potentially disruptive solar activity thanks to new space weather prediction software adopted by the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The WSA-Enlil software aims to better predict how solar flares (pictured) could affect the Earth's atmosphere. Photo credit: NOAA
The software prediction model, named WSA-Enlil, boosts the accuracy with which weather agencies can predict how and when solar flares are likely to hit Earth, giving them more time to warn satellite, airline and infrastructure operators to prevent disruption.
"This advanced model has strengthened forecasters' understanding of what happens in the 93 million miles between Earth and the sun following a solar disturbance," Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, said in a statement on Wednesday. "It will help power grid and communications technology managers know what to expect so they can protect infrastructure and the public."
The old software prediction model meant scientists could predict the timing of when the sun's eruptions — known as coronal mass ejections or solar flares — would hit the Earth within a 30-hour window, while the new model allows them to predict it within a 12-hour timeframe.
"We have been able to view the outputs of the [WSA-Enlil] research runs and we will be viewing the operational output going forward," Mark Gibbs, head of space weather for the Met Office, told ZDNet UK. "The ultimate aim is we will get a copy of the code ourselves so we would actually run the model here ourselves." The benefit of running the code locally would be to get another prediction output to set against NOAA's own prediction, potentially allowing for greater accuracy, he said.
The UK's Met Office and the NOAA signed a special agreement in February that saw them agree to create a shared space weather prediction model and feed information to each other. Though the Met Office did not work on developing the WSA-Enlil software it hopes to feed information to NOAA in the future to increase the accuracy of the results.
"A lot of the knowledge we've got in how different techniques are used in weather forecasting can be applied to space weather forecasting," Gibbs said. "The knowledge and skills we've developed in meteorological forecasting we will try and transfer those across to space weather forecasting."
A lot of the knowledge we've got in how different techniques are used in weather forecasting can be applied to space weather forecasting. – Mark Gibbs, Met Office
By using WSA-Enlil, NOAA should be able to give "airline operators more reliable information about when to reroute flights to avoid communications blackouts from storms. Satellite operators can avoid changing orbit or orientation when space weather threatens", NOAA said in a statement. "Oil drilling, mining and other operations that rely on global positioning systems — which can be made unreliable by space weather — can avoid conditions that might put operators at risk. Power companies can work to prevent problems."
The WSA-Enlil software has two major parts: a "semi-empirical" model of the sun that works out the currents of the solar wind around the sun and a 3D magnetohydrodynamic numerical model that predicts how the charged particles will be carried toward the earth, according to the American Meteorological Society.
In the future the Met Office hopes to integrate space weather prediction models with its own meteorological software to give a fuller view of the Earth's weather systems, Gibbs said. This would involve extending the Met Office weather models up into the high atmosphere so that it could study how the charge from the solar flare was inducted into the atmosphere, and the knock-on effects this would have on the Earth's weather. However, this is entirely theoretical and may not work this way in practice, Gibbs said.
Solar flares, though posing risks to sensitive technology such as GPS, electricity transformers or aspects of avionics technology, are part of an overall series of 11-year cycles in the lifespan of the sun, which is currently at the start of a new cycle that is expected to be fairly quiet, relative to ones in the past.
One of the largest solar flares ever observed occurred in 1859. It was named the Carrington Event after its observer, the British astronomer Richard Carrington. The flare was so powerful that dazzling auroras in red, green and purple erupted across the world as charged particles bombarded the earth's magnetic field and were visible even at locations along the equator such as Cuba, the Bahamas and Hawaii. Typically auroras are only visible at extreme northern or southern latitudes.
The intensity of the flare caused damage to telegraph systems across the world. Discharges shocked operators, telegraph paper was set on fire and messages could be sent even when batteries were unplugged due to current from the auroras being inducted into the telegraph wires.