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Posted 9 June 2011


Solar flare underlines need for internationally coordinated action on space weather hazards

  solar flare
  Image: NASA

Scientists are monitoring a solar flare which is expected to have a minor impact on the Earth’s magnetic field. Such flares are likely to become more frequent and more severe in the approach to the next peak in solar activity around 2013. WMO is stepping up international coordination on space weather hazards.

The sun unleashed a medium sized solar flare, a minor radiation storm and a spectacular coronal mass ejection from a sunspot 7 June, according to NASA, whose observatory missions captured images of a large cloud of particles which mushroomed up and fell back down, looking if it covered an area of almost half the solar surface.

The corona is the sun’s outer solar atmosphere, with strong magnetic fields. When these are closed (usually over sunspots), the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections.

The U.S. National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction Center said that the coronal mass ejection from the sun is expected to make a “glancing blow,” on the Earth’s magnetic system but the exact timing of the impact is uncertain. It said there may be minor (G1) level geomagnetic storm conditions 9 June through 10 June. “The possibility remains for heightened radiation storm levels with the passage of the coronal mass ejection shock, but only moderate (G2) level impacts are expected,” it said in a statement 8 June.

After a relatively quiet sun, solar activity is expected to peak around 2013 and this will have an impact on the environment between the sun and the earth. Solar minimum occurs in years when the number of sunspots is lowest; solar maximum occurs in the years when sunspots are most numerous, sometimes numbering several hundred on a given day. During solar maximum, activity on the Sun and the effects of space weather on the Earth are high.

The solar cycle typically lasts 11 years. But there is a much bigger exposure to space weather effects than in the past because of society’s heavy reliance on wireless communications technology and satellites.

As a result of mounting international concern about the potential risk of disruption to satellites, communication mechanisms, air travel and electric power supplies, the World Meteorological Organization at its May 16-June 3 Congress agreed to boost international coordination of space weather. WMO is working with the International Space Environment Service (ISES) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to bring greater international coordination to respond to requirements with standardized warnings and products.

“We are increasingly impacted by space weather. International coordination allows information to be shared more widely, thereby leveraging national investments,” said Barbara Ryan, Director of WMO’s Satellite Division.

Addressing WMO’s Congress 17 June, Kathryn Sullivan, US Assistant Secretary for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that solar storms were classed as major challenges, along with tsunamis and climate change. “Severe space weather events are an emerging concern, due to their potential to affect the world’s technology-based infrastructure, which we’ve all become more dependent upon,” she said. “Without a coordinated international plan of action, the next extreme solar storm could well be a global disaster in its economic and social impacts," she said.

Several National and Meteorological Hydrological Services around the world have research, observations and reports that are being used by the public and private sector. Jack Hayes, Director of the U.S. National Weather Service told the side event at Congress that in the USA, 13 000 subscribers, including airlines, are already using such information. "There is a growing international threat. All countries could feel the impact, and all can benefit from coordination of information about space weather hazards."

In the United Kingdom, information is available on a 24/7 basis as part of a multi-hazard centre. "Space weather risks are now listed on the UK National Risk Register,” John Hirst, Chief Executive Officer of the UK Met Office, told the side event. “Some people consider this a distant threat. But if communications are disrupted, basic services are disrupted. This will affect all of us.” He added: “In the UK, the forthcoming Olympics gives us a way to talk about this issue in a way we would not do otherwise."

China, too, has an extensive observation network and is a strong information provider. Xianong Sheng, Deputy Administrator of the Chinese Meteorological Agency said, “We have a strong programme. But the nature of the threat is global, so international cooperation is a must. We support WMO space weather activities and wish to share our experiences."



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