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Space Weather

Most of us probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the weather in space.  Wait, weather in space?  Indeed, space experiences disturbances in its environment and since weather terms are a familiar way of describing atmospheric disturbances on Earth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has adopted this language to help communicate the concepts of events that occur in space, particularly between the Sun and the Earth.

So why do we even care about space weather?  Well, the technology we rely on to transmit information via satellite communications is vulnerable to space weather events, and our dependence on these systems and our demand for these services are growing rapidly.  When space weather impacts our communication systems, people and organizations are beginning to take notice, and in some cases altering their activities accordingly.  Just yesterday, in an effort to avoid radio disruptions, Delta Airlines rerouted more than a half-dozen US to Asia flights that would otherwise have flown over the North Pole.

There are three major types of space disturbances or space weather that have the potential to disrupt communications:

  • Geomagnetic storms:  disturbances in the geomagnetic field caused by gusts in the solar wind that blows by Earth
  • Solar radiation storms:  elevated levels of radiation that occur when the numbers of energetic particles increase
  • Radio blackouts:  disturbances of the ionosphere caused by X-ray emissions from the Sun

In addition to defining the above categories, the NOAA has developed scales that rate the intensity of the possible effects of each type from minor to extreme.  Depending on the

Hinrich Baesemann Jan. 24, 2011 Location: Tromso, northern Norway Details: "Expecting the arrival of the shockwave from the solar wind I was out on the coast of Tromso. The nice eddz apperared at about 18:30 UT, not as much as I expected, but I liked it." Image Courtesy of: Minnesota Public Radio (

type of event, minor to moderate effects include interruption of high-frequency radio, power grid fluctuations, and can even impact migratory animals.  Extreme effects can include total high frequency radio blackout that could last up to several hours, power grid blackouts, and some satellites may be rendered useless. To see the scales click here.

Geomagnetic storms, while potentially damaging to communication systems, also provide a pretty show.  A minor level G1 storm produces visible auroras that can be seen from higher latitudes such as Michigan and Maine.  An extreme level G5 storm produces visible auroras that can be seen as far south as Texas and Florida.

The NOAA has joined the social media craze and if you’d like to keep up to date on space weather forecasts you can follow them on Facebook!  If your business relies on satellite communication, be proactive and know when your communications with your customers may be impacted and be prepared to “weather the storm” together!