U-M Scientists Receive $6M to Study Solar Storms That May Impact Electronic Devices

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have been granted nearly $6 million to study solar storms and other space weather events, which can damage power lines, satellites, and astronauts.
solar storm image
U-M scientists are studying solar storms and space weather, which can affect Earth’s electric grid and more. // Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have been granted nearly $6 million to study solar storms and other space weather events, which can damage power lines, satellites, and astronauts.

A solar storm is a torrent of charged particles and electromagnetic fields from the sun. The National Science Foundation and NASA are investing $17 million in a program to develop next-generation space weather modeling software.

U-M faculty members lead two $2.9 million projects. The NextGen Space Weather Modeling Framework project, funded by NSF, aims to accurately predict solar storms and coronal mass ejections a full day in advance. Aether, funded by NASA, aims to improve models of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

“Other than a pandemic, a space weather-caused disruption is the only natural threat that would have nationwide impacts,” says Gabor Toth, research professor of climate and space sciences and engineering and principal investigator on the space weather modeling framework project. “All other natural disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions – are localized, so it’s imperative that we prepare and improve our warning systems.

“If we know what to expect and when, most consequences of space weather can be avoided. The power grid can be shut down, for example. Satellites can be put into safe mode. Spacewalks can be delayed. Sensitive electronic equipment can be switched off. GPS-reliant technology can be switched off or not used.”

The one-day forecasts Toth and his team are working on will be an improvement from the one-hour or 30-minute warning currently possible. The team is developing a model that starts at the sun, rather than closer to Earth. Most of today’s models start about 1 million miles from Earth’s surface at what’s called the Lagrangian point.

Models starting from the sun exist, but they’re not very accurate and provide a binary outlook with no probabilities. The U-M approach will show the likelihood of storms.

“We will provide probability distribution to aid decision makers, similar to how terrestrial weather forecasts say that there is a 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow, as opposed to simply no rain tomorrow,” Toth says.

The Aether project, which involves researchers from other institutions, is led by Aaron Ridley, a U-M professor of climate and space sciences and engineering. Its aim is to make a better model of Earth’s upper atmosphere that lets scientists see what’s happening on a broad scale and in more detail. It will be able to incorporate data from sources such as constellations of satellites. The team is also working to reduce the barriers for students and postdocs to learn how to use the models by hosting summer schools and making lessons.

Ridley says there are limitations with current models, pointing out the various structures in the aurora that are narrow or intense and add a lot of energy to the atmosphere, heating it up. It’s difficult to capture how this affects the atmosphere in current models. Ridley’s team will design a new model grid system to change that.

“This is sort of analogous to trying to model hurricanes in a global weather model,” he says. “It can be done but needs a huge amount of computer resources. It is better to have a nested grid that can capture the hurricane, embedded within the global-scale model.”

U-M’s research of the sun and weather has national implications. An earlier model developed by Toth and others in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering is used by the national Space Weather Prediction Center to provide regional forecasts for 350-square-mile plots of Earth’s surface.

“U-M has a long tradition of developing high quality computational models and software for space and plasma physics,” says Vyacheslav Lukin, program director in the division of physics for NSF. “These awards will enable U-M research groups to both reimagine the software for tomorrow’s supercomputing hardware, and make the new codes widely available to be used and further improved upon by the global space weather modeling community.”