Bypass Chapter Navigation
Contents  
Foreword by Walter Cronkite  
Introduction - The National Science Foundation at 50: Where Discoveries Begin, by Rita Colwell  
Internet: Changing the Way we Communicate  
Advanced Materials: The Stuff Dreams are Made of  
Education: Lessons about Learning  
Manufacturing: The Forms of Things Unknown  
Arabidopsis: Map-makers of the Plant Kingdom  
Decision Sciences: How the Game is Played  
Visualization: A Way to See the Unseen  
Environment: Taking the Long View  
Astronomy: Exploring the Expanding Universe  
Science on the Edge: Arctic and Antarctic Discoveries  
Disaster and Hazard Mitigation
About the Photographs  
Acknowledgments  
About the NSF  
Chapter Index  
Disasters and Hazard Mitigation: Living More Safely On a Restless Planet
 

How's the Weather Up There?

X-ray satellite image of a solar storm - click for details In the spring of 1989, six million people in Canada, Sweden, and the United States lost electric power for up to nine hours thanks to stormy weather—not on Earth, but on the Sun. During particularly vigorous solar storms, billions of tons of plasma erupt from the Sun's gaseous outer layer (called the corona), speed toward Earth at hundreds of miles per second, and disrupt the Earth's magnetic field.

"Coronal mass ejections" constitute a poorly understood natural hazard of growing concern to the scientists at NSF's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). That's because they are associated with features on the Sun known as sunspots, whose activity follows an 11-year cycle. And not only is the most recent sunspot cycle expected to reach its maximum activity in the year 2000, but overall, these so-called "solar maximums" have become twice as powerful as they were in the early 1900s.

From 1980 to 1989, the NSF-funded Solar Maximum Mission satellite collected the most detailed data yet on coronal mass ejections. NCAR researchers used this data to develop a new suite of observation tools that work in space and on the ground. For example, a special electronic camera called CHIP (for "chromospheric helium imaging photometer") perches on the volcanic flanks of Hawaii's Mauna Loa and snaps highly detailed pictures of the solar disk and corona every three minutes. These pictures are frequent enough to provide scientists with a movie loop of ejections as they develop and burst forth. Other satellite-borne instruments—some launched and retrieved by the space shuttle Discovery to escape distortions caused by Earth's dusty atmosphere—mine the sun's radiation for clues about its magnetic behavior. Along with piecing together the basic science behind solar storms, these instruments should help scientists do a better job of predicting the next serious bout of bad space weather.

 
     
PDF Version
Intro
The Forces Underlying the Fury
Reducing the Risk
Hot Heads
Stormy Weather
Trustworthy Tools
El Nino Bears Unwanted Gifts
A Safer Future
Climate Change--Disaster in Slow Motion
How's the Weather Up There?
The Human Factor
To Learn More...
 

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