What comes to mind when you think about the Met Office?
TV and radio Weather bulletins bringing rain to the UK?! Airports and shipping? Or maybe the meteorologists at their Exeter HQ, providing forecasts and services for customers, from utilities to supermarkets?
I bet Space Weather does not immediately spring to mind.
Well, for your information, the Met Office now has a team of space weather advisors, monitoring and forecasting potential disruption to the UK due to extra terrestrial events. By this, I mean the possible disruption to the technologies and infrastructure we all now heavily depend upon, including communications systems, power networks, satellite services like GPS, and the aviation industry.
Luckily, a lot of the skills already possessed by meteorologists are easily transferrable to the world, or should I say universe, of space weather. You need to be able to digest a lot of information, look for patterns, asses risks and forecast impacts. However, space weather is a very different area of science, involving complex interactions between magnetic fields and solar plasma, circulations within the sun and solar mass ejections interacting with the Earth's magnetic field. It's been a challenge, but with the help of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre in Colorado, USA, the Met Office is now (space)ship-shape and advising operationally.
So now that the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre is up and running, my pals in Exeter are constantly monitoring the sun and responding to its activity. As with terrestrial forecasting, space weather can occur any time of the day or night, so coverage is required 24/7.
This involves monitoring the sun with a wide variety of satellite data and imagery, measuring such things as solar wind speed, high-energy proton and electron fluxes, as well as changes in the magnetic field. The clever positioning of various satellites gives forecasters a complete 3D view of the sun. By looking at different images, important features such as sunspots and coronal holes, can be identified. Then, it's a case of examining data from magnetometers worldwide in order to assess if there's any geomagnetic activity affecting us.
Once the status quo is understood, it's a matter of getting to grips with forecasting a possible space weather event. This is where sunspots come into play. There are some sunspot groups with complex arrangements of positive and negative magnetic polarities and these can produce energetic solar flares. Studying coronal holes can also indicate how they might have an impact on Earth's magnetic field. And Coronal Mass Ejections - matter from the sun released into space - can also end up coming our way and impacting on the Earth's magnetic field. They can take from 18 to 96 hours to travel from the sun to Earth, a useful lead-time for forecasters.
With a particularly strong Coronal Mass Ejection, there can well be consequences for power systems. Satellites might have tracking issues, affecting GPS and other communications, and even High Frequency Radio communications can be interrupted. Forewarned is forearmed. Power companies, for example, can retain control of the voltage and keep the national grid going. Other customers include governments, communications industries and the military.
So next time you hear about a large solar flare or a Coronal Mass Ejection, spare a thought for the space weather advisers at the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre. They will be busy issuing relevant and timely warnings and running models to predict impacts. Communication is all. Meaning government and companies can keep the country's technological infrastructure up and running, with minimal impact on our day-to-day lives. And from London to Ludlow, Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, we can settle down with a freshly brewed cuppa come BBC Countryfile time on a Sunday!