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Forecasting for the Final Frontier – Why Space Weather Matters

15 Oct 2015, 6:24 pm

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The Sun is our main energy source and the catalyst for the ever-changing weather inside our atmosphere, but its outbursts can wreak havoc with a different kind of weather too.

It’s called Space Weather and most of us don’t worry about it much. It’s what causes the beautiful auroras after all. But there are people who do worry about it fulltime. They’re the forecasters at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Joe Kunches, a Space Scientist for SWPC, says “We’re here 24 hours a day. As conditions develop, they can take action.”

Predicting Space Weather is a lot like forecasting hurricanes. “When we see an eruption on the sun, we can see way in advance something may be coming towards the earth.” Says Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for SWPC.

That lets them warn industries that need to prepare, like the companies running our power grids. A big solar storm can trip systems offline, like the huge burst that blacked out part of Quebec, Canada and put nine million people in the dark for nine hours in 1989!

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Solar storms can also impact satellite systems responsible for GPS and that doesn’t just affect the navigation system in your car, it can interfere with worldwide flight and shipping systems, agricultural operations and even deep-sea oil rig functions.

Another space weather threat is communications failures, causing cellular and landline interruptions, and sometimes even taking down satellite and shortwave radio transmissions used for transcontinental airline, shipping and emergency communications.

So the next time you enjoy a warm day outside, keep your fingers crossed that it’s not a stormy day on the sun.

Watch

For Weather Nation: John Van Pelt

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