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Science on the back roads could help us prepare for solar storms (5 images)

A line of towers near Kapuskasing are part of SuperDARN, an early-warning system for space weather

There is science on the back roads and the new Solar Cycle 25 has begun.

The potential upswing in space weather will impact our lives and technology on Earth, as well as astronauts in space and a line of towers near Kapuskasing will play a role in understanding the effects.

The satellite-based economy is here and now, nearly all international banking, internet, television and communications are done by satellite.

Beyond the beauty of the Northern Lights, the space environment is extremely dangerous for the delicate electronic systems on every satellite. Conditions are particularly threatening during “magnetic storms” when astronauts are required to take shelter in the International Space Station and transpolar airline flights are diverted to avoid the dangerous radiation from space. These are storms that originate from the Sun and occur in space near Earth or in the Earth’s atmosphere

With the rising sophistication of our technologies and the number of people that use technology, vulnerability to space weather events has increased dramatically.

This unassuming bank of radar towers, located on Sylvain Road in Kitigan, 10 km east of Kapuskasing, are part of SuperDARN which stands for Super Dual Aurora Radar Network, it is a global program, with 35 radar sites around the globe, managed by sixteen institutes in ten countries. The SuperDARN radar outside provides valuable data over central Canada that promotes understanding of ionosphere processes and phenomena.

Researchers are looking forward to the radar contributing to the upcoming solar maximum during the new solar cycle that just started in early September.

Space Weather

“Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology,” said Dr. J. Michael Ruohoniemi Associate Professor, Bradley Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering, Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).

He is the ‘Principle Investigator’ for the Kapusakasing (Kap) radar station as well as Goose Bay, and some others in the U.S.

“They begin with an explosion, a "solar flare"—in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side effects include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors.”

Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive, moving only slightly slower than light itself. Electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics.

SuperDARN is a large international collaboration and the operation of the radar in Kapuskasing is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) through an award to Virginia Tech. A large group at the University of Saskatchewan operates five radars including three in the high arctic ('PolarDARN').

“Kap was built in 1993 and the site was selected because it has a good geometry with the radar at Saskatoon," Ruohiniemi. "This means the fields-of-view of the two radars overlap substantially, making it possible to observe the same volume from two directions which is useful if you are trying to measure velocity. We also selected Kap because it is a substantial town with good facilities.”

He also has a personal connection to the town. “My father was born there and I visited my grandparents often as a kid and teenager. When we were looking at potential sites in northern Ontario I thought of the Experimental farm. We wound up going to the other side of town but it was a good start.”

Concern and Awareness

“Definitely the public should know about the potential dangers,” said Ruohoniemi. “The largest source of error on GPS measurements, for example, is space weather in the ionosphere. If GPS is being used to land aircraft this is a serious concern. “

There was a spectacular occurrence in 1859, known as the Carrington event, that interrupted telegraph systems.

“If we had an event of that magnitude again everyone would be aware of the damage to all the electrical systems in use today. The threat is cyclical with the 11-year sunspot cycle with more intense storms happening at the peak and declining phases. There was a near-miss due to a solar superstorm in 2012 - a really big flare went off but just missed Earth. We are in a quiet phase right now. I don't want to sound alarmist, but yes, we should be paying attention to the danger posed by solar storms.”

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center issues a continuous forecast of the weather in Earth's near-space environment. Solar flares cause impacts that can make the evening news such as the severe geomagnetic storm in 1989; an aurora was seen as far south as Texas and knocked out the Quebec power grid.

“By combining the data from all the radars we get an image of plasma flows in the ionosphere (above 100 km altitude) that looks a lot like a typical weather map with atmospheric winds," Ruohoniemi said. "The radars, in effect, see something like a radio wave version of the visual aurora and we can use the Doppler shift on the signal coming back to estimate plasma flow velocity.”

How it Works

“Village Media readers may be familiar with Ham radio, people who have a tall antenna by their house and a little room crammed with equipment to send and receive High Frequency (HF) radio signal. Because this signal bounces off the ionosphere at heights of 100-300 km, it can be received by other Hams a great distance away. The ionosphere is highly variable because of solar storms and sometimes the Hams can make amazing connections with people on the other side of the world but can't connect to each other a few hundred kilometres apart. Our radar works basically like a Ham radio except that we have many antennas (16) and we are interested in how the signal bounces off the ionosphere and what that tells us about the space environment, not in communicating with other people (although we could). Not very much power is required and the radars operate continuously under computer control with connections to research labs in Canada, the U.S., and other countries.”

SuperDARN has shown how the circulation of plasma in the ionosphere ('plasma winds') at high latitudes is tightly controlled by the solar wind. The plasma consists of ions and electrons and can move at speeds greater than 1 km per second, so these winds are incredibly fast compared to the wind that blows in the atmosphere at ground level. “When viewed from well above the North Pole, you can see the winds forming giant cells of circulation similar to atmospheric winds. When the solar wind changes, especially when its magnetic field reverses direction, the pattern of circulation can flip in a matter of minutes. By combining data from multiple SuperDARN radars we are able to image these changes as they happen and to study the physics of the sun-earth connection, which is the basis for space weather.”

The back roads hold a lot of oddities.

This bank of radar towers doesn’t appear to be anything special but when the physics behind this space weather interaction is understood it can be seen in a different light. Scientists working on predictive models will one-day forecast space weather much like meteorologists forecast weather on Earth.