Over the next decade, forecasts of spectacular northern
lights and other solar-generated events will become as commonplace as
today’s thunderstorm predictions, say scientists meeting this week in
Boston to plan the first five years of accelerated space weather
research. To aid the effort, the National Center for Atmospheric
Research (NCAR) will provide a computer model of Earth’s upper
atmosphere and unique information on solar dynamics, both from NCAR’s
High Altitude Observatory.

The NCAR contribution will be part of a more comprehensive research
model that will mimic space weather, from solar explosions to auroras
(southern and northern lights) to geomagnetic storms on Earth. The
new technology will help scientists understand solar-terrestrial
activity and eventually predict when and how it will affect
activities on Earth. They expect to produce space weather forecasts
similar to today’s daily weather forecasts by the end of this decade.

The National Science Foundation is funding the multi-institutional
effort, called the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling
(CISM), with a $20 million grant over five years. NCAR’s share, $3.3
million, will fund new research and modeling efforts on the Sun and
in the upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere, known as the ionosphere
and thermosphere, as well as educational activities.

“In space weather we’re about where weather forecasters were forty
years ago,” says NCAR director Tim Killeen, a principal investigator
for CISM. “But we have the advantage that the computing power and the
modeling know-how already exist. And now we’ve got the resources to
make significant progress within just a few years.”

“The big solar energy blasts move fast and can have a huge impact on
the ionosphere,” says NCAR scientist Stan Solomon. “With the planned
CISM model, it’s within our technical reach to advance from the
current system of alerts and warnings for these events to more
precise numerical forecasts. These can give us enough lead time–
hours to days–to prepare for possible disruptions to communications
and navigation. And we’ll try to predict when and where people can
see an aurora.”

The ionosphere and thermosphere are the final link in the space
weather chain stretching from the Sun to Earth. It is in these far
upper regions that important solar-terrestrial effects occur.
Satellite orbits can drop in altitude because of increased drag in
the upper atmosphere during high solar activity and geomagnetic
storms. Communications and navigation systems are disrupted by
changes in the ionosphere in Earth’s polar and equatorial regions.
Large currents flowing in the ionosphere can induce currents in
ground wires, disrupting power systems and telephone lines. The most
dramatic manifestations of solar energy in Earth’s atmosphere are the
brilliant blazes of color in polar skies, known as auroras.

Roberta Johnson, an upper atmosphere scientist at NCAR and head of
UCAR’s Education and Outreach Program, will be channeling some of
this newfound knowledge toward the public through UCAR’s Windows to
the Universe Web site. Nonscientists can experience what it’s like to
run the computer model and browse actual model results. A Boulder-
based teacher will be invited to help NCAR Outreach staff develop
classroom activities for exploring the upper atmosphere. Later in the
program an NCAR workshop will train local teachers on presenting
space weather materials in the classroom.

“Understanding the outer atmosphere is daunting,” says NCAR physicist
and CISM researcher Alan Burns. “We’ve got chunks of data
concentrated in tiny areas in the midst of voluminous, data-empty
space. But we’ve got to start somewhere. That’s what science is all

Burns, Johnson, Killeen, and Solomon are upper atmosphere scientists
in NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory division. Ray Roble, also in HAO,
led the team that developed the NCAR model. Sarah Gibson conducts the
solar dynamics research at NCAR for CISM. NSF is NCAR’s primary sponsor.

-The End-

Note to Editors: A CISM press conference will be held Tuesday,
September 17, at 1:00 p.m. EDT at Boston University, Room 315, George
Sherman Union.