Tuesday, 16 May 2017 02:07

Edmonton researchers lead discovery of 'space tsunami' that can knock out GPS, power grids


An illustration showing changes in the Van Allen Belts as a "space tsunami" of solar radiation batters Earth's magnetic field.

The toll taken by extreme weather here on Earth gets most of the attention, but a new discovery by Edmonton scientists is highlighting the impact that extreme space weather can also have on humans and our power, telecommunications and navigation systems.

Announced Monday in the scientific publication Nature Physics, findings by researchers at the University of Alberta are solving a mystery phenomenon in the Earth’s magnetosphere, the protective shield around the planet that absorbs and deflects potentially harmful solar wind blowing in from the sun. 

But when it’s severe enough, space weather at altitudes of 100 to 70,000 kilometres — where satellites fly — can disrupt power grids on Earth or fry the electronics of orbiting spacecraft or satellites beaming GPS, telecommunications and other services back to the ground.

Scientists had been puzzled by the temporary appearance in 2013 of a third Van Allen Belt. The regions within the Earth’s magnetosphere known as the inner and outer Van Allen Belts are where high-energy protons and electrons are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

Working on the NASA Van Allen Probes mission, a $700-million, two-spacecraft investigation of space radiation, the U of A discovery showed for the first time how the third Van Allen Belt is created by severe space storms, or waves of intense ultra low-frequency plasma waves.

“We found much, much larger waves in the system than we thought, a kind of space tsunami,” said Ian Mann, U of A physics professor and lead author of the study.

“It’s sloshing this radiation around much more than we previously thought and it kind of washes away large parts of the outer radiation belt.”

The washing-away process makes the region a safer environment for spacecraft by ridding it of much of the radiation and explains the formation of the third radiation belt.

The discovery could help in the design of technology better equipped to withstand severe space weather, Mann said. Some studies estimate the cost of damaged space and Earth infrastructure from a severe weather storm could be as high as $2 trillion US.

“It’s becoming increasingly accepted now that there’s a risk not only from extreme weather, but from extreme space weather,” Mann said.

The White House recently announced the implementation of a plan to reduce the effects of severe space weather by developing steps to protect infrastructure.

Because of Canada’s northern geography, understanding the impact of space weather is even more pressing, Mann said. 

Source: This article was published on edmontonjournal.com by Bill Mah

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