An increase in solar activity during the last few months has raised fears about the impact a giant solar flare might have on airline schedules and power grids as large clouds of charged particles head towards Earth. Such events are expected to become more common as the Sun enters the most active stage of its 11-year cycle and understanding the impact of increased solar activity is becoming more important. New research by the Met Office will study the distant layers of our atmosphere in an attempt to better understand these impacts. Their aim is to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service that will monitor the way the Sun's matter and energy changes, and predict how these changes are likely to affect the Earth's environment.
Helping make this a reality is Mark Gibbs who is in charge of the Met Office's space weather strategy and development. "Mostly we see the Sun as never-changing," says Mark, "but in reality it's like any dynamic system. Constantly shifting and changing the energy and matter it emits. And that can have profound influences on the Earth and its inhabitants."
The weather we experience everyday develops in the lower levels of our atmosphere, known as the troposphere which is only a few miles above our heads. This new research will focus on the layers between 60 miles to 380 miles above the ground, where space weather is more noticeable as the Earth's magnetic field repels streams of charged particles emitted by the Sun. As these charged electrons collide with atoms in the outer layers of our atmosphere they are drawn to Earth's northern and southern poles by its magnetic field and produce the spectacular aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights). Due to the increased solar activity in recent weeks, the northern lights have been visible across many parts of the UK. However, the negative impacts of the increased solar activity have yet to be seen but we know they can be hugely significant like the vent in Quebec, Canada, on 13 March 1989, when fluctuations caused by a geomagnetic storm plunged six million people into darkness when the power grid failed.
The Met Office has also announced it will make its climate models available to Exeter University academics to help them explore what atmospheric conditions might be like on other planets, like Mars or Jupiter. Many planets are phase locked which means that one side is permanently in daylight and the other side is in permanent darkness. This sets up huge temperature difference from one side of the planet to the other which creates super strong winds that blow at thousands miles per hour. Thankfully we don't experience anything quite like that on planet Earth.