If Gov't Shuts Down, Boulder Space Weather Scientists Are Still Watching

Feb 7, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 9:27 am

The government could be heading into another shutdown Thursday, but some of the places deemed too essential to close are seldom heard of, like this windowless office in Boulder. 

It’s a weather prediction center, but not the usual kind. Instead of talking about snow or rain, these forecasters talk about plumes of molten plasma. The winds they watch travel at a million miles an hour. This office specializes in space weather.

“Geospace has been doing OK,” says Shawn Dahl, one of the forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center, as he starts off a daily briefing to a group of scientists and military folks who’ve assembled in a dark room at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the last few hours, Dahl has been closely watching changes on the sun’s surface. The briefing is a recap of what the sun’s been up to. Specifically, what it might be hurling at Earth.

“Nothing coming around from the far side of the sun, so what we have here is new. It emerged in the last six hours,” says Dahl, pointing to a series of screens behind him: a dozen flaming balls, each one a slightly different portrait of the sun, in different colors and filters. 

They’re crawling with activity, like spherical anthills. Flaming tendrils curl from the surface. Jets of particles stream off the surface. This is the sun on a quiet day.

“And that is all I have,” says Dahl, after discussing X-rays, protons, and “slow” wind speeds of just 700,000 miles an hour. “Enjoy your day.”

The group files out of the room, and Dahl takes a seat, using a red pencil to mark new spots on a map of the sun that he’ll want to watch closely over the next few hours.

This center is the only non-military one like it in the country. It exists because, every so often, the sun causes problems for Earth.

“It's not a nice quiet ball of light that comes up every day and sets each night and shines and gives me heat. I look at it as giant turmoil of magnetic fields twisted all over the place,” says Dahl, as a colleague pulls up footage from the Halloween storm of 2003.

“This basically presents a very long week of work for us,” says Monty Spencer, another forecaster. In the video, the sun at first looks like a perfect yellow ball except for a few red pinprick spots. But then those spots get bigger and bigger, almost like bleeding wounds.

“What you’re seeing is magnetic loop structures coming up and getting intertwined and becoming more active,” says Spencer, referring to the spots, which are darker regions of the sun’s surface that indicate a magnetic disturbance. Sometimes, such turmoil can turn into solar flares, spewing particles that are responsible for producing the Northern Lights.

In this case, solar flares ended up flinging a lot of particles right at Earth, seen as a series of explosions, the last so big that the screen goes fuzzy, like static on a TV. 

Bob Rutledge, director of operations at the Space Weather Prediction Center, says that burst of particles skewed GPS systems, messed with satellites and high-frequency radios, and knocked out electricity in some parts of the world.

“That’s a good example of how things can go wrong across all sectors,” says Rutledge.

The Department of Defense reportedly had to cancel a mission because their communication systems didn’t work right. Compasses in Alaska started pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Astronauts on board the International Space Station had to seek shelter from excess radiation.

“The reality for space weather is most people can go most of their lives and never realize it exists,” says Rutledge. 

But those in the know worry that -- with just a few minutes of warning -- an even bigger storm could fry key parts of the power grid. Rutledge says the industry is working on transformers that that are less at risk of solar fizzle. In the meantime, the grid is vulnerable, even to much smaller, more earthly nemeses.  

“I have a good friend who worked a power outage Sunday night from a squirrel,” he says.

So, what’s the bigger threat: squirrels or sun?

“I think if you did pure outage hours, I think squirrels would win,” says Rutledge.

But while a squirrel might be able to knock out power in a few thousand homes, a big solar storm could potentially do magnitudes worse.

That’s the reason why solar storms -- and not squirrel attacks -- were the subject of a 2016 executive order from the Obama administration (which the Trump administration has not rescinded). The order said that extreme space weather “could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, and transportation.”

It’s also the reason why -- day after day, night after night, shut down or not -- the space weather forecasters here will keep filing into the office to keep watch on the sun.

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