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.

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

Jeff Masters

Reader Comments

Comments will take a few seconds to appear.

Post Your Comments

Please sign in to post comments.

Sign In or Register Sign In or Register

Not only will you be able to leave comments on this blog, but you'll also have the ability to upload and share your photos in our Wunder Photos section.

Display: 0, 50, 100, 200 Sort: Newest First - Order Posted

Viewing: 77 - 27

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9Blog Index

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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
72,73 LOL!! Running out of beer? NOW THAT'S SCARY!! :D
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
that storm developed over northern broward and moved on without giving us any rain.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Vortex95:
WHAT ABOUT THE SUPER VOLCANO OR A HYPERCANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or deadly pandemic disease, or asteroid hitting Earth. Can anyone think of any others?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Distance from a GRB dosent matter..its the aim point that is critical.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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?

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
This episode talks about the research being conducted on the Sun through the Hinode Satellite. Astronomy. NASA.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
"memories..Like da corner's of my Mind.."
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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...

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Member Since: Posts: Comments:

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.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
good that means we get a good chance of some rain. we need it down here
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I see what you're talking about...looks dark to my North...stay safe if you're up there in Broward
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
whats the directionality of that cell, any chance those of us down here in broward will see anything from it?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
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
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.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:

Viewing: 77 - 27

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9Blog Index

Top of Page
Ad Blocker Enabled

Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog


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

Recent Posts

Local Weather

Partly Cloudy
75 °F
Partly Cloudy

JeffMasters's Recent Photos

Grizzlies in Lake Clark National Park
Mount Redoubt Lava Dome
Matanuska Glacier
Icebergs From Columbia Glacier