Forecasters watch the sun for signs of geomagnetic storms

Forecasters watch the sun for signs of geomagnetic storms


They don't know precisely when one will hit, and they can only estimate the potential damage. Still, forecasters at the Space Weather Operations Center in Boulder, Colo., warn that catastrophic space storms could cripple military communications systems and shut down electric power to soldiers and civilians.

The center is jointly operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force.

'You know that one is going to happen, but you don't know when,' said Ernie Hildner, director of NOAA's Space Environment Center. 'It's time for it to repeat, so we should be alert.'

Government scientists issue daily bulletins on solar weather conditions to the military. A five-point scale rates the intensity of geomagnetic storms.

That information and other space weather data is posted online at

During a solar storm, high-energy electrons emitted from the sun hit the Earth, which can affect satellite performance.

align="left" width="110">

size="2" color="#FF0000">This extreme ultraviolet image of the sun was taken from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft.

In 1989, a geomagnetic storm left more than 6 million people in Quebec without power for 12 hours. Space storms generally run in 11-year cycles, although there have been several relatively minor solar flares since then, officials said.

But that could soon change.

Maj. Jeff Cox, chief of space weather operations at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., and Col. Jeff Carson, commander of the 55th Space Weather Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., both have seen weather patterns indicative of a solar maximum period.

align="right" width="110">

size="2" color="#FF0000">This image of the sun's
outer atmosphere shows an
explosion of hot ionized gas called a coronal mass ejection, which can cause a geomagnetic storm, possibly disrupting communications systems.

For military personnel, a large solar flare could be dangerous, even life threatening, Cox said. It could affect communications satellites used for navigation by Air Force U-2 pilots. It could also shut down power to a warfighter who is depending on wireless communications.

'The effects are very wide ranging,' Carson said. 'There are lots of examples of space weather adversely affecting military satellites, even though it's miles up in space. Of course since a lot of military operations occur in space, command and operations need to have awareness.'

Deadly potential

Space forecasting started in the 1960s with the Apollo program. NASA wanted to provide astronauts with an up-to-date solar forecast, as harmful particles can kill or seriously injure an astronaut.

Combat capability is directly linked to the ability to forecast the solar weather. The Defense Department relies on the Global Positioning System for accurate aircraft navigation, and guided missile and bomb targeting [GCN, Oct. 19, 1998, Page 33]. GPS satellites could be adversely affected by a geomagnetic storm.


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