Stormy weather

Stormy weather

As space storms threaten planet Earth, Canadian researchers are using powerful computers to help forecast and avoid the worst
June 20, 2003

Each day on earth, humans go about their business oblivious to the battle royal that rages on just above their heads.

This ultimate showdown takes place between the radiant power of the Sun, havoc-wreaking space storms, and the Earth's "magnetosphere"—an invisible shield that surrounds our planet and protects us from sure catastrophe.

Without this shield, every last component of our modern technology would be seriously damaged or destroyed. More significantly, the Earth's invisible magnetic barrier prevents the energy given off by the Sun from boiling away our oceans and dissipating our life-sustaining atmosphere. Clearly, the stakes are high.

So high, in fact, that researchers at the University of Alberta's Space Physics Group are working to develop advanced computer models, as well as visualization and simulation techniques, that will help them better understand the near-Earth space environment and the complex and puzzling relationship between the Sun and the Earth.

Led by Dr. Robert Rankin, a Professor of Space Physics, the U of A group is using a number of new CFI-supported facilities—including the Canadian Auroral Network for the OPEN Program Unified Study (CANOPUS) and the new Multimedia Advanced Computational Infrastructure (MACI) — to understand the power and complexities of space weather. Their ultimate goal is to develop new and novel forecasting techniques that will help reduce the toll that space storms have on our magnetosphere and Earth-bound technology. "We know enough about the interacting elements of this (Sun-Earth) system to construct computer models that provide a lot of useful information," says Dr. Rankin. "It may eventually allow us to predict the effect of a solar eruption on the satellites and ground-based technologies that we crucially depend on."

Whether it's power blackouts, errors in Global Positioning Satellite systems, or failures in satellite communications, Dr. Rankin says many of these occurrences can be traced to adverse changes in space weather and the powerful energy fluctuations it causes. Space storms surrounding the Earth originate from eruptions of high-energy particles from the Sun, such as solar flares, which flow through space and interact with the Earth's magnetic field.


Computational facilities at the University of Alberta's Space Physics group are being used by researchers to enhance our understanding of space weather storms and the sub-storms they create.

These storms can have a direct impact on vital technologies and infrastructures. Sub-storms can attack sensitive satellites with "killer electrons," which are capable of severely impairing and even destroying communications satellites.

On Earth, power transformers can be also be overwhelmed by massive surges of energy that pass from the upper atmosphere into terrestrial power grids leading to widespread power outages.

Dr. Robert Rankin and his research team at the University of Alberta's Space Physics Group are conducting research that involves the development of new computer-simulated magnetospheric models. These simulations are capable of modeling the myriad of waves and surges taking place near Earth and thousands of miles into space as the solar wind whips the magnetosphere in much the same way as a hurricane would stir the oceans. These space weather interactions are a major cause of our weather on Earth and are the biggest threat—outside of asteroids—to our space-faring technologies.

The computer models are being designed to help improve the forecasting of coming space storms, which would give satellite and power grid operators the time to batten down the "electronic" hatches before a storm hits.

Canada's geographic proximity to the North Pole gives our researchers and their international partners a front-row view of the most spectacular consequences of the Sun-versus-Earth war—the most visual evidence being provided by the aurora borealis or northern lights. Combined with Canadian scientific expertise and credibility, it comes as no surprise that Canadians are playing a significant and unique role in emerging international space weather programs, particularly those in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.


Canadian scientific research expertise is playing a significant and unique role in emerging international space weather programs, particularly those in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

The University of Alberta's Space Physics Group is no exception. The group is actively involved with many geo-space research organizations and projects:

  • The Canadian Auroral Network for the OPEN Program Unified Study (CANOPUS) is a data collection and analysis system and is Canada's contribution to the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics Program (ISTP). CANOPUS is currently undergoing a major transition into the Canadian Geospace Monitoring (CGSM) program. This program involves the participation of five Canadian Universities, two government agencies, and several international partners including NASA and the European Space Agency.

  • The Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) is an international network of high-frequency radar pairs used to study the ionosphere. The network covers almost all of the north and south poles and can relay data around the world in real-time, which is essential for forecasting space weather.

  • The Northern Solar Terrestrial Array (NORSTAR) is a scientific project designed for the study of large-scale auroral processes. Ground-based observations of this kind can achieve spatial resolution better than global satellite imagers, and at a fraction of the cost. This instrument array also provides a valuable platform for local observations within Northern Canada.