Canadian Scientists Study Effects of Space Weather

Space weather has the potential to wreak havoc on satellite technologies and cause blackouts. Earlier this month, two large solar flares disrupted radio communication. In March 1989, a similar solar event knocked out power to much of Quebec. Canada intends to study how space weather could impact utility networks, banks, hospitals, and other infrastructure.

A powerful solar flare erupted on the surface of the sun on Sept 6th, 2017, disrupting radio communications. (Helioviewer/NASA
A powerful solar flare erupted on the surface of the sun on Sept 6th, 2017, disrupting radio communications. (Helioviewer/NASA)

Pierre Langlois is part of a team at the Canadian Space Agency looking to understand how space weather could impact the country’s infrastructure. The agency is hiring a contractor to perform a first-of-its-kind study in Canada to assess how its most critical systems, like electrical grids, could be affected by space weather, according to a request for proposals posted on the government’s tenders page.

Space weather refers to the environmental conditions in space and in Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere that are due to events that occur on the Sun. Most solar events are associated with sunspots so Canadian scientists at Space Weather Canada monitor sunspots on a daily basis for eruptions such as Solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejectons (CMEs). They provide a space weather forecast that includes Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

Both solar flares and CMEs involve huge explosions of energy but are otherwise quite different. Flares can last minutes to hours. Most of the energy from solar flares reaches Earth as light. It takes eight minutes for the light from a solar flare to reach us. Some of the energy released in the flare also accelerates very high energy particles that can reach Earth in tens of minutes. The energy from a flare can disrupt the area of the atmosphere through which radio waves travel.

In contrast, CME events hurl solar matter into space. Traveling over a million miles per hour, the hot magnetized particles from a CME take up to three days to reach Earth. The CME particles may interact with Earth’s magnetic fields to produce fantastic displays of northern lights. The magnetic changes can also affect human technologies: High frequency radio waves can be degraded, GPS coordinates stray by a few yards, and electrical currents are created in utility grids.

The new study on the impact of space weather arose out of a recommendation from the United Nations earlier this year. The study has a budget of $300,000 and will take 15 months. The agency wants risk assessments done on the impact space weather could have on a variety of infrastructure systems from road and railway transportation to satellite-based services such as navigation, telecommunication, and military efforts, as well as on government services, banks and hospitals.