Our detection of coronal mass ejections (CMEs), also known as solar storms, isn’t the best. Right now, satellites give us just a 30-60 minute heads-up of an incoming solar storm. A new tool could extend that notice to 24 hours. A team led by Dr Neel Savani, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, wrote in-depth about this new technique in a paper published in Space Weather.

The solar storm affect

The typical solar storm affects satellites and some land-based communications such as radio. But, the effects can be much worse depending on the severity of the solar storm.

The most severe solar storms can cause widespread power outages. One of the most famous examples in recent years was the geomagnetic storm that struck Quebec, Canada in 1989.

A massive geomagnetic storm slammed into Earth’s magnetic field causing circuit breakers to trip on Quebec’s power grid. The power outage lasted nine hours. As a result of the solar storm, officials had come up with ways to mitigate the sudden spikes in electrical current.

The ‘big one’ that worries scientists the most is a solar storm similar to the Carrington event in 1859. This solar storm was so powerful, auroras were visible in the Caribbean. Telegraph systems across Europe and North America shocked their operators. Some telegraph operators were even able to continue sending and receiving messages even after unplugging the power supply.

A similar event today would cause catastrophic damage to communication systems.

In 2013, researchers estimated the costs from a similar storm would swell into the trillions of dollars just in the U.S.

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The new model

Dr Savani touched on the importance of this model. “As we become more entwined with technology, disruption from large space weather events affects our daily lives more and more,” said Dr Savani. “Breaking through that 24 hour barrier to prediction is crucial for dealing efficiently with any potential problems before they arise.”

Current predictions rely on initial measurements of the CME eruption. But, what about what happens between the first eruption and the CME’s arrival at Earth. That’s what the new technique looks at.

sun magentic fields

A model showing the magnetic field lines using data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

The new model looks at where the CME forms on the sun and then uses several observations to track and model the solar storm as it pushes towards Earth.

Savani and his colleagues used their model on eight previous mass ejections with promising results. NASA plans to conduct tests of their own.

“We’ll test the model against a variety of historical events,” said Antti Pulkkinen, director of the Space Weather Research Center at NASA Goddard. “We’ll also see how well it works on any events we witness over the next year. In the end we’ll be able to provide concrete information about how reliable a prediction tool it is.”

If NASA’s testing backs up Savani’s results – agencies will have a new tool in their solar storm early warning toolbox.

Image credits: NASA

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