When you open a weather app on your phone or catch the latest forecast on the local television news, the information you receive affects several decisions you make that day — which clothes you will wear and what activities you will do.
Space has weather, too, and while its effects on daily life may not be as obvious, it can be just as impactful.
Space weather is activity on the Sun’s surface that ultimately affects the Earth and its atmosphere. Like tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, space weather can also be devastating. Extreme space weather impacts electric power grids, spacecraft, and satellites used for communication, global positioning systems and intelligence gathering.
Clemson University Department of Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Xian Lu leads a team of researchers studying how the Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere — the area about 60 to 400 miles above the Earth’s surface — change because of atmospheric waves from terrestrial sources and geomagnetic disturbances triggered by solar activity. The research aims to improve space weather forecasts in order to minimize disruptions and damage.
Lu and her collaborators have received a three-year, $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Integrative Geospace Sciences: Advancing National Space Weather Expertise and Research toward Societal Resilience (ANSWERS) program to study the impacts of atmospheric waves, geomagnetic activity and solar irradiance to the variability of space weather during quiet and storm times.
The grant supports a multi-disciplinary team including Jens Oberheide, a professor in the Clemson Department of Physics and Astronomy, and researchers from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech.
“There are two important sources for variation of space weather. One is coming from below via the vertical coupling of atmospheric waves originating from terrestrial weather, and the other is coming from above via the solar wind, magnetosphere and atmosphere coupling. We’re focusing on both and studying the interactions between these two important processes,” said Lu.
The researchers will focus on three key science questions.
First, scientists want to know the day-to-day ionosphere-thermosphere variability induced by lower-atmosphere waves and persistent geomagnetic disturbances and how their relative contributions and underlying mechanisms change with location.
Second, the researchers want to discover multi-scale responses to intense weather and terrestrial convective events and compare their response characteristics.
Finally, the team wants to study the preconditioning effects of atmospheric waves on the ionosphere-thermosphere response to geometric disturbances.
“Better understanding what’s going on in the ionosphere-thermosphere system is key to better predicting space weather and potentially avoiding the damage it can cause,” Lu said.
One potent solar storm in March 1989 left the entire providence of Quebec, Canada, in the dark — and potentially without heat — for up to nine hours. The outage cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Lu said that with the world’s growing reliance on technology, predicting space weather is even more crucial.
The researchers will use data from various ground-based and space-borne instruments, couple a general circulation model with a high-resolution regional wave model physically, and use data assimilation to improve the model drivers. The goal is to depict a whole picture of the underlying drivers of space weather, an essential prerequisite for its future predictability.
Besides the research, the team will develop a new space weather curriculum and leverage existing education and outreach programs at the collaborating universities to increase understanding of the importance of space weather.
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