Space Weather Phenomena

 Space Weather describes the variations in the space environment between the sun and Earth. In particular Space Weather describes the phenomena that impact systems and technologies in orbit and on Earth. Space weather can occur anywhere from the surface of the sun to the surface of Earth. As a space weather storm leaves the sun, it passes through the corona and into the solar wind. When it reaches Earth, it energizes Earth’s magnetosphere and accelerates electrons and protons down to Earth’s magnetic field lines where they collide with the atmosphere and ionosphere, particularly at high latitudes. Each component of space weather impacts a different technology.

 Space weather can produce electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines, and even causing widespread power outages. Severe space weather also produces solar energetic particles, which can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning, intelligence gathering and weather forecasting.

The sun is the main source of space weather. Sudden bursts of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sun's atmosphere called coronal mass ejections together with sudden bursts of radiation, or solar flares, all cause space weather effects here on Earth.

Space Weather Impacts

Different types of space weather can affect different technologies at Earth. Solar flares can produce strong x-rays that degrade or block high-frequency radio waves used for radio communication during events known as Radio Blackout Storms. Solar Energetic Particles (energetic protons) can penetrate satellite electronics and cause electrical failure. These energetic particles also block radio communications at high latitudes in during Solar Radiation Storms.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) can cause Geomagnetic Storms at Earth and induce extra currents in the ground that can degrade power grid operations.

Geomagnetic storms can also modify the signal from radio navigation systems (GPS and GNSS) causing degraded accuracy. Geomagnetic storms also produce the aurora. Space weather will impact people who depend on these technologies.

  • Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems.
  • Loss of perishable foods and medications.
  • Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems.
  • Loss of computer systems, telephone systems and communications systems (including disruptions in airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services).
  • Loss of public transportation systems.
  • Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines.
  • Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power.

Steps to prepare:

  • Develop a Family Emergency Communications Plan that has an out-of-state contact. Plan where to meet if you get separated and practice your evacuation plan.  

  • Create a Disaster Supply Kit or GO bag for your household. Use this Emergency Supply Kit Checklist to prepare for one for your home and car.
  • Pets are an important member of your family, so they need to be included in your emergency plan with this Pet Supply Checklist.
  • Sign up for your community’s warning system. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio also provide emergency alerts.
  • Be aware that most medication that requires refrigeration can be kept in a closed refrigerator for several hours without a problem. Check with your physician or pharmacist if you are unsure about your specific medication.
  • Keep your car’s gas tank at least half full. Gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps.
  • Know where the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener is located and how to operate it.
  • Keep extra batteries or external chargers to charge your phone, laptop and other small electronics in the event of a power outage. Keep a car phone charger in your car.

Steps to Take During an Occurrence

  • Keep your electricity usage as low as possible, which can help power companies avoid imposing rolling blackouts during periods when the power grid is compromised.
  • Follow the Emergency Alert System (EAS) instructions.
  • Disconnect electrical appliances if instructed to do so by local officials.
  • Do not use the telephone unless absolutely necessary. Keep phone lines open for emergency personnel during emergency situations.

Steps to Take After an Occurrence

  • Throw away any food that has been exposed to a temperature of 40° F (4° C) or higher for two hours or more, or that has an unusual odor, color or texture. When in doubt, throw it out!
  • Never taste food or rely on appearance or odor to determine its safety. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they have been at room temperature too long, bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses can start growing quickly. Some types of bacteria produce toxins that cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • You can refreeze food in the freezer if the food is colder than 40° F and has ice crystals on it.
  • Measure the food’s temperature with a food thermometer if you are not sure that it is cold enough.