Solar storms threat: Michigan researchers work to improve forecasts

University of Michigan researchers receive more than $5 million for projects

A coronal mass ejection on the Sun (NASA)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Faculty members at the University of Michigan are leading two $2.9 million projects to improve solar storm forecasting.

What is a solar storm? Here’s how meteorologist Paul Gross explains it:

“The Sun provides us warmth and life. It’s a living body that’s constantly in motion. It may appear calm from far away, but enormous explosions called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) periodically belch into space with jets of charged particles. If a strong CME is directed toward Earth, then those charged particles interact with our planet’s magnetic fields to induce currents that can potentially damage satellites, force airlines to reroute flights and damage power grids.”

Read more: Is Detroit’s power grid ready for the next solar storm?

Solar activity simulation: Interaction of two coronal mass ejections in the inner heliosphere. The distribution of plasma temperature and magnetic field lines. (Talwinder Singh, Tae Kim, and Nikolai Pogorelov, University of Alabama in Huntsville; Charles N. Arge, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

This is why the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA are investing $17 million in a program to develop next-generation space weather modeling software, NSF announced Tuesday. The University of Michigan is involved in two projects:

  1. The NextGen Space Weather Modeling Framework project, funded by NSF, aims to accurately predict solar storms and coronal mass ejections a full day in advance.
  2. And Aether, funded by NASA, aims to improve models of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

“Other than a pandemic, a space weather-caused disruption is the only natural threat that would have nationwide impacts,” said Gabor Toth, U-M research professor of climate and space sciences and engineering and principal investigator on the space weather modeling framework project. “All other natural disasters—hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions—are localized. So it’s imperative that we prepare and improve our warning systems. If we know what to expect and when, most consequences of space weather can be avoided. The power grid can be shut down, for example. Satellites can be put into safe mode. Spacewalks can be delayed. Sensitive electronic equipment can be switched off. GPS-reliant technology can be switched off or not used.”

The university said an earlier model developed by Toth and others in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering is currently used by the national Space Weather Prediction Center to provide regional forecasts for 350-square-mile plots of Earth’s surface.

For more information on the NSF and NASA partnership, go here.

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