If you’ve ever greeted the weather forecast with scepticism or just taken it with a pinch of salt, imagine how it must be trying to predict space weather. Yet that’s the job of the Bureau of Meteorology’s Australia Space Weather Forecasting System.
A photograph of the Aurora borealis, seen over Sweden.

Aurora, Borealis and Australis

When we discuss space weather, we don’t mean thunder and lightning in outer space, or the weather on planets like Jupiter. Although, Jupiter’s great red spot is a storm that has been raging for nearly 400 years, and we think that’s pretty neat.

Instead, space weather includes the electromagnetic radiation (solar flares) and charged particles (coronal mass ejections, or CME) that the Sun constantly throws into space. These particles reach Earth’s atmosphere, and because they interact with our planet’s electromagnetic field, they create the Aurora Australis, and the northern hemisphere’s equivalent, the Aurora Borealis.

Observers in places close to the poles usually notice nothing more than the billowing ‘curtains’ of pretty light. Under rare conditions, the aurora might be visible to the naked eye in parts of Australia.

When it’s seen at all in Australia, the aurora is only a faint ‘ghostly’ glow. Moreover, the famous colours of the Aurora Australis mostly appear afterward in long-exposure photographs.

Sometimes, these storms are particularly energetic, and the Aurora Australis is visible to the naked eye from places significantly north of Tasmania. Last year, observers in Western Australia as far north as Mandurah occasionally caught faint glimpses of colour.

But, even more rarely, space weather becomes more extreme. For instance, causing ‘geomagnetic storms’ that affect space hardware, such as satellites, telescopes, and the International Space Station.

An artist's impression of blasts of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles from the sun impacting Earth's magnetosphere.

The Carrington Event

Today’s modern world increasingly relies on technologies susceptible to space weather (geomagnetic storms). This space weather can sometimes have almost catastrophic effects on Earth.

Better known as The Carrington Event, the ‘solar storm of 1859’ remains the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history.

Astronomers observed the first recorded solar flare on September 1, 1859, unleashing an untold amount of energy, causing a surge in solar particles and a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) directed towards Earth.

The resulting geomagnetic storm knocked out telegraph systems around the globe, sending sparks flying and starting fires. Our world had never seen anything like it.

Other solar storms have followed, with smaller events reported in 1872 and 1921. Storms of similar strength today would, it’s been suggested, cause widespread power blackouts. In 1989, the most significant magnetic storm of the last century (roughly a third as powerful as the Carrington Event) knocked out power to six million people in Quebec in a nine-hour outage.

Satellites in polar orbits lost control for several hours, and the Space Shuttle Discovery suffered malfunctions. It was the height of the Cold War, and tensions were running high.

An abstract image of computer code, digits falling

Guarding against an internet apocalypse

The SWS estimates that the worst-case scenario of a significant space weather event could cause “power supply instability and transformer damage” and “prolonged outages to major metropolitan areas.

Some researchers warn we’re still frighteningly vulnerable.

John G. Kappenman has spent decades warning global grids are underprepared for a significant storm akin to the Carrington Event. Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi says a once-in-a-century solar superstorm could potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months in what she cheerfully calls an internet apocalypse.

But you aren’t in the dark. The BOM’s Space Weather Service (SWS) lists current space weather conditions, updated every 5 minutes, covering everything from geomagnetic and radiation storms to probability forecasts for solar flares to aurora conditions and forecasts.

The latter is a good tool for astrophotographers and aurora chasers hoping to get pictures of the Southern Lights.

The NOAA predicts our sun’s current cycle will reach ‘Solar Maximum’ between January and October this year. Because of this, we can expect more sunspots and CME, and possibly increased aurora activity.

Check out this month’s list for more info on where to find the Best places for space weather information

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A cartoon drawing of handsome bald man wearing a black hoody is looking thoughtfully up at the starry night sky
Jay Chesters is a freelance journalist, feature writer, and award-winning author with a particular passion for stargazing and astronomy. Jay enjoys any opportunity to share stories or pass on what they know.

Jay Chesters

Author

Stargazers Club WA and Astrotourism WA acknowledge and pay tribute to the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Western Australia. We recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait people as the world's first astronomers and their continuing connection to lands, sky, waters and communities. We offer our respect to them, their cultures, and to Elders both past and present.