Driving space weather forecasts with real data

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Meteorology

Abstract

Space weather, the result of variable conditions in the near-Earth solar wind, has a number of adverse effects on Earth- and space-based technologies, particularly power infrastructure, and communication, Earth-observation and GPS satellites. Our increasing reliance on such technologies drives an increasing need to reliably forecast space weather. NERC has a central role in the science of forecasting and mitigating such natural hazards, and the UK Met Office (UKMO) is currently developing its own space-weather forecasting system.

Advanced space-weather forecasting relies on a chain of numerical models to simulate the propagation of disturbances from the Sun to the Earth. Currently, this coupled system of models is driven by observations of the magnetic field at the solar photosphere. This is used to model the magnetic field structure in the solar corona. Unfortunately this provides only very indirect information about the speed or density of disturbances, meaning estimates of their arrival time and characteristics are not well constrained.

The recently developed Heliospheric Imager (HI) instruments allow the first continual observations of the solar wind structure between the Sun and the Earth. We propose to use these direct solar wind measurements to drive the chain of space-weather forecast models, which should provide a vast improvement of the skill in which the forecast of near-Earth solar wind conditions. This new forecast scheme will require the solar wind speed and density to be estimated from HI data. Solar wind magnetic field information will still be derived by the existing method of coronal magnetic field modelling. Density will be derived from the absolute brightness of structures observed by HI. Speed will require solar wind features to be tracked through consecutive HI images. This will initially be performed by human observers, as part of the citizen science project, Solar Stormwatch. Later in the project, this tracking process will be fully automated, allowing analysis of a much greater quantity of HI data and for the scheme to be more readily transitioned into operational forecast use.

The proposed 3-year work plan covers the full development and testing of the new forecast scheme. At the end of the project, the scheme will be transitioned to the UK Met Office. It is then expected to be adopted internationally through the UKMO's close collaboration with the Space Weather Prediction Center in the US.

Planned Impact

The UK Met Office and other international space-weather forecasting agencies will benefit directly from the outcome of this research, as will the many end-users of their forecasts, including NASA, ESA and the UKSA.

Our research would also inform those seeking to understand the risks posed by space-weather. The insurance industry is seeking to quantify the risks; Lloyds of London commissioned a briefing report into space weather and its impact on Earth and implications for business (http://www.lloyds.com/News-and-Insight/360-Risk-Insight/Research-and-Reports/Space/Space-Weather). The UK government recently included space weather in the national risk register. The space industry, spacecraft operators and space agencies also take a keen interest in space weather both to protect existing assets in space and also to inform the development of new technologies that would mitigate against such risks. Our research will improve our understanding of the Earth's space environment and provide better forecasting of the space environment around Earth.

The ability to better predict solar wind conditions will provide more accurate input to those running models of the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The UK Met Office is currently working with modellers at University College, London to provide such a service. Solar wind transients are known to disturb the Earth's upper atmosphere. Particle precipitation, variable magnetic fields and strong electrical currents generate frictional heating that causes the atmosphere to expand and the ionosphere to become disturbed and weaken. The results of such activity are;
- An expanded thermosphere that results in increased satellite drag
- Loss of HF radio and enhanced radiation that requires long-haul flights to divert from polar regions
- Geomagnetically induced currents can cause unexpected surges in power grids
- GPS navigation systems can become less accurate and signal from spacecraft can be lost
Better forecasting of such events would enable more cost-effective action to be taken by vulnerable industries. While the aircraft industry is aware of the limitations of GPS, other users such as the maritime industries, surveyors, drivers and a host of other users with an over-reliance on GPS timing and positioning will be affected.
Other users who depend on reliable HF radio for communication are those operating in remote areas such as the military, search and rescue services and emergency aid programmes. Improved forecasts of enhanced solar wind conditions at Earth will also benefit are tourists and tour operators offering trips to see the spectacular northern lights.

There is great public interest in the Sun and its influence on our planet as demonstrated by the success of the citizen science project Solar Stormwatch (www.solarstormwatch.com) for which Chris Davis is the project scientist. This project has so far attracted over 20,000 interested members of the public, globally, to help analyse solar wind data and to provide real-time space-weather forecasts. Solar Stormwatch members have already proved that they are very capable of tracking solar wind transients and we intend to harness their enthusiasm once more in analysing solar wind data in more detail. Automatic identification of indistinct features is a complex problem but one that has been shown to benefit from an initial training set provided by manual identifications.

We will promote our project to the general public through the stormwatch blog and discussion forum, by writing articles for popular science magazines and by providing input to other interested media outlets. We anticipate that any improvements resulting from this research will become an integrated part of the forecasting process within 5 years.

Staff working on project will gain skills in image processing, statistical data analysis, communications, computer programming, problem solving, an understanding of plasma physics, project management and media.

Publications

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Lockwood M (2014) Centennial variations in sunspot number, open solar flux and streamer belt width: 3. Modeling in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Owens M (2014) Modulation of UK lightning by heliospheric magnetic field polarity in Environmental Research Letters

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Lockwood, Mike (2016) On the origins and timescales of geoeffective IMF in Space Weather-the International Journal of Research and Applications

 
Description Our intention with this award was to develop a method by which we could characterise the background solar wind using spacecraft data and use this to as an input to space weather propagation models. This we have now done and have published the results; https://doi.org/10.1029/2019SW002226
Exploitation Route Initialising space weather models with real data has the potential to provide more accurate forecasts of space weather events (such as solar mass ejections) at Earth. Those tasked with providing space weather forecasts (in the UK, the Met Office) will benefit from replacing the current input parameters (based on a statistical model) with real-time data.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Electronics,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

 
Description Contributed to the Space Weather Dialogue
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL http://talkspaceweather.com/
 
Title Automatic tracking of Coronal Mass Ejections 
Description A technique was developed to automatically identify and track coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) in images from the STEREO Heliospheric Imagers. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A research paper was published 
URL http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~yq904481/CMEProfileComparison
 
Title First database of automatically tracked solar wind transients 
Description First database of automatically tracked solar wind transients 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This database has received much interest and resulted in LB invited to give 2 seminars 
URL http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~yq904481/CMEProfileComparison
 
Title Solar stormwatch solar wind transient catalogue 
Description We used data analysis by over 16,000 public participants in the citizen science project www.solarstormwatch.com to create a unique and detailed catalogue of solar wind transients known as Coronal Mass Ejections. This catalogue, now made available online, will be of great use to our on-going project (in testing automated tracking routines) and to the wider research community. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This catalogue, now made available online, will be of great use to our on-going project (in testing automated tracking routines) and to the wider research community. 
URL http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~spate/solarstormwatch/
 
Description ISSI team Long-term Reconstruction of Solar and Solar Wind Parameters 
Organisation International Space Science Institute (ISSI)
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided geomagnetic and sunspot-based reconstructions of solar activity parameters and statistical expertise
Collaborator Contribution Provided cosmogenic isotope reconstructions of solar activity parameters
Impact one paper published, two additional papers submitted.
Start Year 2011
 
Description International Space Science Institute team on Scenarios of future solar activity for climate modelling 
Organisation International Space Science Institute (ISSI)
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided expertise on space weather events as they relate to climate forcings and provided updated forecast of solar activity from one of our publications.
Collaborator Contribution Climate modelling expertise and other forecasts of solar activity parameters
Impact A dataset is to be released on the 31st March 2016 and an accompanying publication is in preparation.
Start Year 2015
 
Description Space Weather Research Network (SEREN) 
Organisation British Antarctic Survey
Department Space Weather Research Network
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Three members of this project (Mathew Owens, Luke Barnard and Christopher Scott) participated in three international workshops focussing on specific aspects of space weather research. During these meetings we presented the work conducted by our group on driving space weather forecasts with real data.
Collaborator Contribution These workshops were attended by representatives of both research and operational space weather organisations from the UK and USA. Each attendee presented and took part in discussions.
Impact Discussions with academic and industrial partners from the UK and USA
Start Year 2014
 
Description EGU 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave a talk on CME catalogue
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description EGU 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave a talk on comparing CME catalogues
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description European Space Weather Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave a talk on CME catalogue
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description European Space Weather Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB presented a poster on modelling solar wind speed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description European Space Weather Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave a talk on CME catalogues
CJS gave a talk on solar wind influence on lightning
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description RAS Discussion Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave talk on comparing CME catalogues
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Seminar at Imperial COllege 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave an invited seminar at Imperial College
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Seminar at MSSL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact LB gave invited seminar on CME catalogues
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description We have used data from the citizen science project www.solarstormwatch.com to create a unique catalogue of solar wind events 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We took spacecraft data analysed by the general public ont he website www.solarstormwatch.com to produce a unique catalogue of solar wind events analysed in unprecedented detail. We have created an onlilne catalogue that can be found here;

http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~spate/solarstormwatch/


We engaged with around 16,000 people worldwide in the data analysis that lead to the creation of this scientific catalogue - increasing the visibility and public understanding of our science
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2012,2013,2014
URL http://www.met.reading.ac.uk/~spate/solarstormwatch/