Space Weather storms

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:40 PM GMT on March 31, 2009

Twenty years ago this month, on March 13, 1989, I was aboard NOAA's P-3 weather research aircraft, bumping through a turbulent portion of a fierce winter storm in a remote ocean area between Greenland and Norway. We were searching for clues on how to make better weather forecasts for the regions of Norway and the northern British Isles battered by these great storms. Our 2-month project, based in Bødø, Norway, was called the Coordinated Eastern Arctic Research Experiment (CEAREX) . Today's flight took us through the heart of an extratropical storm developing at the edge of the sea ice that covered the ocean waters east of Greenland.

As I looked over at the white-capped, forbidding waters of the Greenland Sea, I reflected today's flight was not particularly dangerous by Hurricane Hunter standards, though the storm's tropical storm-force winds made the ride a bit rough at times. However, we were a long way from civilization. Should an emergency require us to ditch the aircraft in the ocean or the nearby remote island of Jan Mayen, we'd be tough to find unless we were able to radio back our position before going down. Far from any land areas, our communication life-line to the outside world was HF radio (ham radio), which relied on Earth's ionosphere to bounce signals off of. Three hours into the flight this life-line abruptly stopped working.


Figure 1. Sea ice swirls in ocean eddies off the coast of Labrador, Canada, in this photo I took during a 1989 CEAREX flight.

"Jeff, can you come up to the cockpit?" Aircraft Commander Dan Eilers' voice crackled over the intercom. I took a break from monitoring our weather instruments, took off my headset, and stepped forward into the cockpit of the P-3.

"What's up, Dan?" I asked.

"Well, HF radio reception crapped out about twenty minutes ago, and I want to climb to 25,000 feet and see if we can raise Reykjavik Air Traffic Control to report our position. We're flying at low altitude in hazardous conditions over 500 miles from the nearest airport, and it's not good that we're out of communication with the outside world. If we were to go down, search and rescue would have no idea where to look for us."

I agreed to work out an alteration to the flight plan with our scientists, so that we could continue to collect good data on the storm while we climbed higher. The scientists weren't too happy with the plan, since they were paying $20,000 for this flight, and wanted to stay low at 1,500 feet to better investigate the storm's structure. Regardless, we climbed as high as we could and orbited the storm, issuing repeated calls to the outside world over our HF radio. No one answered.

"I've never seen such a major interruption to HF radio!" Commander Eilers said, worriedly. "We can go back down to 1,500 feet and resume the mission, but I want to periodically climb to 25,000 feet and continue trying to establish communications. If we can't raise Air Traffic Control, we should consider aborting the mission".

I agreed to work with the scientists to accommodate this strategy. They argued hotly against a possible cancellation of this mission, which was collecting some unique data on a significant winter storm. So, for the next four hours, we periodically climbed to 25,000 feet, issuing futile calls over our HF radio. Finally, after an uncomfortable eight hours, it was time to go home to our base in Norway. As twilight sank into Arctic darkness, a spectacular auroral display--shimmering curtains of brilliant green light--lit up sky. It began to dawn on us that the loss of our HF radio reception was probably due to an unusual kind of severe weather--a "Space Weather" storm. An extremely intense geomagnetic storm was hitting the polar regions, triggering our brilliant auroral show and interrupting HF radio communications.

The geomagnetic "Superstorm" of March 13, 1989
As it turned out, the geomagnetic storm of March 13, 1989 was one of the most intense such "Space Weather" events in recorded history. The storm developed as a result of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun four days previously. The CME event blasted a portion of the Sun's plasma atmosphere into space. When the protons and electrons from the Sun arrived at the Earth, the planet's magnetic field guided the highly energetic particles into the upper atmosphere near the magnetic poles. As a result, the lower levels of the polar ionosphere become very ionized, with severe absorption of HF radio, resulting in my uncomfortable flight over the Greenland Sea with no communications. The geomagnetic storm didn't stop there--the storm's charged particles triggered a strong magnetic impulse that caused a voltage depression in five transmission lines in the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada. Within 90 seconds, automatic voltage compensation equipment failed, resulting in a generation loss of 9,450 MW. With a load of about 21,350 MW, the system was unable to withstand the generation loss and collapsed. The entire province of Quebec--six million people--was blacked out for approximately nine hours. The geomagnetic storm also triggered the failure of a large step-up transformer at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey, as well as 200 other failures on the North American power system. Auroras were observed as far south as Florida, Texas, and Cuba during this geomagnetic "superstorm".


Figure 2. Red and green colors predominate in this view of the Aurora Australis (Southern Hemisphere aurora) photographed from the Space Shuttle in May 1991 at the peak of the geomagnetic maximum that also brought us the March 13, 1989 geomagnetic "superstorm". The payload bay and tail of the Shuttle can be seen on the left hand side of the picture. Auroras are caused when high-energy electrons pour down from the Earth's magnetosphere and collide with atoms. Red aurora occurs from 200 km to as high as 500 km altitude and is caused by the emission of 6300 Angstrom wavelength light from oxygen atoms. Green aurora occurs from about 100 km to 250 km altitude and is caused by the emission of 5577 Angstrom wavelength light from oxygen atoms. The light is emitted when the atoms return to their original unexcited state. Image credit: NASA.

Solar Maximum is approaching
The sun waxes and wanes in brightness in a well-documented 11-year cycle, when sun spots and their associated Coronal Mass Ejections occur. We just passed through solar minimum--the sun is quiet, with no sun spots. We are headed towards a solar maximum, forecast to occur in 2012. Geomagnetic storms are at their peak during solar maximum, and we'll have to be on the lookout for severe "Space Weather" starting in 2010. I'll talk more about severe "Space Weather" storms in my next post, when I'll discuss the greatest Space Weather storm in recorded history--the famed "Carrington Event" of 1859--and what damages it might wreak were it to happen today. An extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2008 says that a repeat of the Carrington Event could result in the most costly natural disaster of all time.

Resources
MetaTech Corporation's animation of the March 13, 1989 geomagnetic "superstorm".
spaceweather.com
NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC)

Jeff Masters

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Bar- erm I mean George W. Bush.
Most of these ideas about how the world could end are just theories with not real data to back up even the possibility of such things happening. The ones that we do have solid evidence on are objects striking the earth and solar flares. These are not theories, but very real and we are only becoming aware of the possibilities.

Whether any of these things will happen in any of our life times is only conjecture, but we do know that they have happened before and can happen again.
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Well another 2012 possibility is another El Nino 15 years after the 1997-98 El Nino which was 15 years after the 1982-83 El Nino. Something like that, which raises the temperature of the earth another 0.5-1 C could be the real start of severe global warming and ice melt, which we have seen some of since temperatures stabilized at a new higher plateau after the 97-98 El Nino.

As for a solar storm I see no evidence that the 2012 max is more likely to cause massive solar storms than the previous peaks in the cycle. Perhaps it will. But I doubt it.
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
72,73 LOL!! Running out of beer? NOW THAT'S SCARY!! :D
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Quoting natrwalkn:

Or deadly pandemic disease, or asteroid hitting Earth. Can anyone think of any others?


Running out of beer
Member Since: August 12, 2007 Posts: 2 Comments: 2838
Or a black hole hitting the earth. Or a brown dwarf entering the solar system and ejecting the planets into interstellar space. Or antimatter hitting the earth. Or space aliens with their novabombs ;)
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Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Permanently? I would think a severe solar storm could cause a lot of problems, but surely repairs could and would be made.


Permanently as in the equipment is burned out by over currents caused by over voltage spikes. Anyone with any significant experience with electricity/electronics is very familiar with the effect. It actually happens quite often. How ever we have never seen it happen on a nation wide or world wide basis. If the entire national power grid was burned out, it could be repaired or replaced, but it would take many months to do so. The result is that we would be sent back into the dark ages, so to speak until the repairs/replacements could be made. The huge power transformers that connect our power grid and step the voltages up or down as needed are custom made and take many months to build. Of course we have extensive systems in place to deal with power outages on a smaller scale. Power can be rerouted around systems that are burned out and there are systems in place to deal with the voltage surges. But there is a limit to what they can handle. We have only become aware over the past 10 to 15 years that it is possible to knock out all of the systems at once. It would take a great deal of energy from space to do this, but it is possible. Whether is will happen is anybodies guess, but I for one do not believe is coincidence. Even though I do not put a lot of stock in what some people say about the future, I also do not ignore them. It just struck me as odd that this year 2012 keeps coming up over and over from many sources and now a scientific source is pointing to that same year. Clearly having all of our technology knocked out would not be the end of the world, but it would cause significant problems which would lead to others. Much like most of us are now aware that could come about because of a nuclear war. I don't think anybody ever considered the possibility of a natural cause in our near future causing such significant problems. What is interesting is that someone did consider this possibility as there was a documentary on the weather channel I believe dealing with this very same possibility.
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that storm developed over northern broward and moved on without giving us any rain.
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Quoting Vortex95:
WHAT ABOUT THE SUPER VOLCANO OR A HYPERCANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or deadly pandemic disease, or asteroid hitting Earth. Can anyone think of any others?
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Well aware of the Eta Carinae axis positon. But a probable GRB event happened here on Earth 450 million years ago.



Were well prepared here though.




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WHAT ABOUT THE SUPER VOLCANO OR A HYPERCANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Actually, distance is important. Eta Carinae is 8,000 light years away. Even if it was aimed at us, a GRB would not be very serious, although astronauts in the space station would probably be killed or made very sick. As it is, gamma rays when they encounter iterstellar dust and gas can be absorbed and then re-radiated--but usually as infrared rays. Eta Carinae is the biggest source of IR in the sky second to the sun and moon---more than is received from the other planets, or stars like Sirius or Alpha Centauri. But since it's rotational axis is not pointing towards us, we won't get a GRB from Eta Carinae anyway.
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It's very disturbing to know how many different types of apocalyptic events are possible. How many are possible that we don't know about?
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Distance from a GRB dosent matter..its the aim point that is critical.
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Hmmm.
Fortunately there are no supernova candidates close enough to cause damage with a gamma ray burst. Betelgeuse and Eta Carinae have their rotational axes aimed the wrong way if they blow.
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
The Ultimate Doomsday Event comes from a Star,..but not ours.

Scientists believe gamma ray bursts were responsible for a mass extinction 450 million years ago. The gamma rays strip away the ozone layer and generate chemical smog, producing a widespread chill that grips the Earth. An expected electromagnetic pulse will zap all of our electronics. How will our modern cities hold up in the face of a previous global catastrophe?

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Permanently? I would think a severe solar storm could cause a lot of problems, but surely repairs could and would be made.
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This episode talks about the research being conducted on the Sun through the Hinode Satellite. Astronomy. NASA.



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That forecast was issued 13 hours before the strongest hurricane landfall recorded in the USA made landfall in the Keys.
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
Very impressive story Jeff. I've been aware of the interference of Solar Flares on Ham Radio and HF communications since my High School days when I was first introduced to Ham Radio Communications. It was very interesting many times to listen to the Electromagnetic Storms over the Ham Radio Frequencies. Only over the recent years have I begun to understand that these solar flares could do much more than interfere with radio. I remember the black outs caused by the storms in Canada and along the East Coast of the USA. I think that was a major wake up call for many of us, because we simply didn't know that these storms could be so powerful and disruptive. Now we know that they can generate EMI as well as RFI that can disrupted satellites and power grids.

The dates you mention of 2012 are a little disconcerting though when combined with other recent discoveries. You may have seen documentaries on the History Channel and Discovery Channel about a number of sources and documents to point to the year 2012 as though some catastrophic even was going to happen. I try not to put too much stock in such stories, but when you mention that 2012 is the next Solar Max, it makes me wonder if someone knew something about just how bad the solar storms would be. It has been a concern of a number of experts that a solar storm could be severe enough to knock out all of our communications and power grids permanently. Though the chances of that would seem to be pretty remote, now I'm starting to wonder after reading your report.
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"memories..Like da corner's of my Mind.."
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And another bad, bad forecast:

September 2, 1935 8 AM:

The tropical disturbance is central about 200 miles east of Havana, Cuba and accompanied by shifting gales and probably winds of hurricane force near its center. Caution advised vessels in Florida straits next 24 to 36 hours.


Oops.
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
Well there is a tornado in the Palm beach blob. F0-F1 would be a sure bet.
College of DuPage Meteorology
Severe Weather and Flash Flood Warnings
Note: This page will reload every 2 minutes. Warnings are listed with the most recent first.



Note: This page will reload every 2 minutes. Warnings are listed with the most recent first.
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FPL's grid will be put to the test once again...only had 2 brownouts last week and 1 5-minute blackout 2 nights ago...

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Link
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
46. At least in my area im not too confident. Over 60 mph winds with gusts should still knock the transformer out if it lasts long enough.



RADIATION PLAN FOR THE APOLLO LUNAR MISSION Jerry L. Modisette, Manuel D. Lopez, and Joseph W. Snyder Space Physics Division NASA Manned Spacecraft Center Abstract

The radiation protection plan for the Apollo Pro-
gram is based on real-time monitoring of solar ac-
tivity and radiation in the spacecraft to provide
data on which to base estimates of the radiation to
be expected. The major radiation hazard is from so-
lar flare particle events, which are unlikely to
occur during any given mission. The monitoring sys-
tem, consisting of onboard dosimeters and the Solar
Particle Alert Network, provides early warning
through observation of solar flares and the associ-
ated radio bursts and a continual updating of the
radiation picture as particles arrive at the space-
craft. Prediction criteria have been developed
which are progressively revised as more data are
received, with a corresponding reduction in the
error limits on the prediction of radiation dose.


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43. I can imagine what the mid 1800's forcasters said.

Theres a huge seamonster in the ocean heading east north east. LOL

This would work better if it were 1500's
MP, always do. the one item i have to say, relative to the season we have coming. Now we get to see just how much better FPL's power grid is.
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If a rash of scattered storms start to develop I hope they are not severe.
good that means we get a good chance of some rain. we need it down here
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Some of the forecast notes are better:

Friday, September 17, 1926 8AM:

The tropical storm that passed near Turks Island Thursday afternoon is apparently central about 23 latitude North and 74 latitude West, and is moving rather rapidly west-northwestward attended by hurricane force winds near its center. This is a very severe storm.

Not too bad for a forecast written 22 hours before it hit Miami.
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38. when I find out how to phrase what I mean better i'll say it. you are right there are plenty of severe storms in S Fla but i'm trying to think of the proper way of what im trying to convey.
I see what you're talking about...looks dark to my North...stay safe if you're up there in Broward
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Unless its just spinning it looks like its going south.
whats the directionality of that cell, any chance those of us down here in broward will see anything from it?
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I don't understand what you mean by severe Vort95...if you mean systems that produce those monster tornadoes on the plains then yeah...but really, in a month or two there will be 'severe' thunderstorms almost daily in South Florida...enough to set your watch by.

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35. hail eh? seen peasized hail fall where I live for 1 min I head the tapping nosie and went outside and for 1 min i see little balls falling to the ground. It all melted in 10 mins.
haha, that one cell that you are talking about. swear that I saw what looked like the makings of a vortex off of it. I am located in the Coconut Creek/Margate area, looking north.
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Quoting Vortex95:
26. The one in NE Palmbeach is stationary and going strong. I see purples in it.


Ya 4in an hr there and also 1in hail.
Member Since: August 12, 2007 Posts: 2 Comments: 2838
Well, there are tornado outbreaks in FL, and have been some really nasty ones at night with squall lines during winter El Nino seasons.

But, you don't get things like dry lines, and by late spring and summer strong jet streams that can be tapped to induce rotation and tornadoes are rare. Excepting the innumerable waterspouts, of course.
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wow! over 4 inches of rain from the NE palm beach blob and signs point to it still to be going strong.
29. Severe thunderstorms!!!! not just a thunderstorm.
The links work fine for me!
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 257 Comments: 21376
Thursday, September 6, 1900, 8 AM:

The tropical storm is central this morning slightly north of Key West. It has increased somewhat in energy and is causing severe northeast gales over portions of southern Florida. It will probably continue slowly northward and its effects will be felt as far as the lower portion of the Middle Atlantic coast by Friday night. Hurricane warnings are displayed from Cedar Key to Savannah, and storm warnings from Charleston to Kitty Hawk.
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Quoting Vortex95:
I wondering why severe thunderstorms are rare in S Fla?


The Florida peninsula experiences more thunderstorms per year than any other location in the United States.
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26. The one in NE Palmbeach is stationary and going strong. I see purples in it.
South Florida rarely gets SEVERE thunderstorms usually they are just plain thundershowers. If anything they are small and don't affect to large of an area unlike those of the midwest.

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Dr. Masters (r) co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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