New breakthrough could vastly improve forecasts for potentially disastrous solar storms

One scientist recently estimated that a "solar tsunami" could cause outages costing the US economy $7.2 billion per day.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of ESA's Vigil spacecraft.
An artist's impression of ESA's Vigil spacecraft.


A new scientific breakthrough could allow satellites to send improved warnings ahead of potentially dangerous solar storms.

A team from the University of Reading found that prioritizing speed over reliability could improve the accuracy of solar wind forecasts by 50 percent in the long term, a press statement reveals.

The new research comes as global scientists and leaders increasingly turn their attention to the potentially dire economical impact of a massive solar storm.

Solar storms "threaten our technology-focused way of life"

The new research could enable weather forecast agencies, such as the Met Office, to provide more accurate forecasts for severe space weather, which can cause blackouts. In a worst-case scenario, one scientist recently warned that a massive solar storm could knock out global WiFi and cost the US economy $7.2 billion per day.

The scientists, who published their findings in the journal Space Weather, believe we need to do more to prepare against the potential risks of space weather.

"We know lots about how to prepare for storms that form on Earth, but we need to improve our forecasts of the dangerous weather we get from space," lead researcher Harriet Turner, from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology explained in the statement.

"Space weather threatens our technology-focused way of life as it can cause power grids to fail, damage satellites, such as GPS, and even make astronauts ill," Turner continued.

New method allows for faster space weather forecasts

In their paper, Turner and colleagues outlined how rapid satellite measurements, which aren't quite as reliable, are still effective for forecasting space weather.

"Our research has shown that using rapid satellite measurements to forecast space weather is effective," Turner said. "By sending spacecraft far from Earth, we can use this new technique to get better solar storm predictions and ensure we are prepared for what's to come."

Traditionally, agencies have combined data from computer simulations with observations of solar wind from space to forecast space weather. This process, known as data assimilation, can take days to provide high-quality observations. 

The new study proposes using near-real-time (NRT) data that undergoes no processing. It is less accurate but provides all necessary data within a couple of hours. By comparing the two methods, the research team found that NRT data still produce reliable predictions while also enabling a longer warning time ahead of a potentially severe space weather event. This would allow for more crucial preparation time in the face of potential outages that could have dire consequences for global economies.

The scientists hope that agencies will soon leverage upcoming spacecraft, such as the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Vigil, which is set to launch in the mid-2020s. The first-of-its-kind mission will monitor potentially dangerous solar activity from space.

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