Front Range

A Sunny Forecast

Boulder scientists predict how the sun’s whims will affect Earth’s technologies.
January 2013

It’s Monday morning, and nearly two dozen people crowd a room of Boulder’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) complex. Their eyes are trained on three 70-inch flat-screens displaying near-real-time satellite images of the sun. The group reviews reports of something called “space weather,” which is caused by highly charged particles, such as protons and electrons, being emitted by the massive star. “It’s a quiet day,” says Joe Kunches, space scientist for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “It could all
change tomorrow.”

 These bursts of energy can crash into Earth’s atmosphere, and the collision can trigger “storms” that disrupt the magnetic field around our planet, knocking out airline communications, power grids, and GPS systems. From this control room in Boulder, Kunches and the center’s other 91 employees monitor the sun 24/7 to predict how activity on its surface might affect our planet 93 million miles away. By analyzing data from satellites, ground observations, and other space weather centers worldwide, they issue international forecasts, warnings, and alerts for solar activity that might cause problems on Earth. One of the largest documented solar storms occurred in 1989 and knocked out a power grid in Quebec, Canada, which caused six million people to lose electricity for nine hours.

Now is the season for such storms. Space weather is more common in the years surrounding the solar maximum—the midpoint in an 11-year cycle when flares pop from the sun’s surface more frequently—and the next maximum is in 2013. Although the odds of an intense solar storm are still relatively low, the potential impacts are vast. A worst-case-scenario storm, which would likely knock out pricey satellites and spacecraft, could inflict $100 billion in damage worldwide. But there’s good news, too: On a clear, dark night when a solar storm is upon us, venture to the mountains, and you might be able to glimpse the Northern Lights, which dip farther south during major storms. “You might get lucky,” Kunches says, “and see a nice light show.”