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Solar storms: Two breakthroughs could lead to better warnings

The solar storms that cause blackouts and damage satelites have always been hard to predict, but two new methods of monitoring them could lead to much more accurate forecasts.

By Staff writer / August 19, 2011

Solar storms: This photo of the sun shows coronal-mass ejection as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7.

SDO/NASA/Reuters

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Intense solar storms can disrupt satellites, airline and electric-utility operations, and, in the case of astronauts on orbit, directly endanger lives.

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Thursday, independent teams of researchers unveiled a pair of storm-tracking techniques that could significantly improve forecasts of "space weather" storms, the researchers say.

One team's approach tracks magnetic fields while they are still taking shape nearly 40,000 miles below the sun's surface, well before they form and corral groups of sunspots on the solar surface. These sunspot groups represent active regions that spawn coronal-mass ejections – outbursts that can send up to 1 billion tons of hot plasma hurtling through space at up to 1 million miles an hour.

The second team used a pair of sun-watching satellites to build detailed images of a coronal-mass ejection and its evolution as it traveled from the sun to Earth. Until now, researchers had been able to track these eruptions in detail for only about the first 20 percent of the trip, yet a cloud's structure and speed, among other traits, can change markedly across the missing 80 percent of the trip.

Between the two projects, the teams have developed tools to track some of the most severe types of space weather from gestation within the sun to delivery at Earth's doorstep.

"For the first time, we're beginning to see a complete, predictive system," says Craig DeForest, a solar physicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who led one of the two teams.

For federal space-weather forecasters, these techniques could lead to substantial improvements in the accuracy of their forecasts.

The largest coronal-mass ejections most often come from active, sunspot-dotted regions of the solar surface. "It is pretty exciting to be able to look underneath the sun and try to predict when an active region will appear," says Alysha Reinard, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.

With the new ability to track in detail a coronal-mass ejection along its complete trip, it should be possible to predict effects at Earth to within eight hours of its arrival, as opposed to today's 12- to 14-hour window, she says. Such an improvement could, for instance, allow airliners flying intercontinental routes to travel along the most fuel efficient routes longer before they have to change course to avoid air space subject to radio blackouts, which solar storms can bring.

The developments come as two scientists in Britain suggest that over the next several decades, solar storms could become a more significant problem than they are today. And it isn't just because of the spread of vulnerable technologies, such as power grids.

If the sun is entering a prolonged phase when the peak sunspot activity is relatively weak to nonexistent, solar storms would become fewer in number but more powerful when they do occur. Their conclusions appeared in the May 11 issues of the Journal of Geophysical Research and is based on Antarctic-ice-core reconstructions of past solar activity.

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