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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

Atmospheric Phenomena

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.