Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


Space weather is the focus of a new multimedia experience

Posted: May 10, 2016

Space weather is the focus of a new multimedia experience A large cloud of plasma ejected from the sun in 2002. If a large, fast-moving cloud of plasma hits Earth, it could damage crucial parts of the grid. Credit: NASA

Michigan Engineering recently created a digital multimedia experience titled, “Lights out: a tale of disaster, and the science behind it.”

The experience describes a scenario in which electricity is out for days due to a solar storm. While it is hard to know what the chances are of a potentially catastrophic storm hitting Earth in the next decade, we do know that the Earth has seen extreme geomagnetic storms before.

Until recently, the population concerned about the possibility of a geomagnetic disaster was mainly comprised of survivalists and space weather researchers, including a team of leading forecasters in Climate and Space. Now, power companies and even the White House are paying attention to space weather’s potential to seriously damage the grid.

The ability to prevent a geomagnetic disaster depends in part on the ability to forecast a geomagnetic storm. At present, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is running software developed by Climate and Space to predict how a plasma cloud ejected by the sun evolves on its way to Earth. Still, the researchers responsible for that software in the Center for Space Environment Modeling, directed by Tamas Gombosi, the Konstantin I. Gringauz Distinguished University Professor of Space Science and Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering, are trying to take it to the next level by forecasting the eruptions themselves.

To improve space weather prediction, researchers need more observatories in orbit around the sun, says Gombosi, especially with the 2014 demise of a satellite that helped produce a 360-degree view of the sun. These new weather stations would observe parts of the sun’s surface we can’t see from Earth but that will be spinning to face us within hours.

“It’s like when you have a weather forecast, and you have a weather station just here outside the window,” said Gombosi. “It will tell you what is going on right now. But if you want to know what will happen tomorrow, you need something in Chicago.”

To watch the experience, please visit Look for Assistant Research Scientist Dan Welling in the fictional TV news interview!

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