Weather, Bigger and Better

An active solar cycle and a weakening geomagnetic field can have blistering consequences on those prone to getting sunburns. In the time it took me to clean the gutters this weekend, I had enough exposure to the sun to make sitting down tender for three whole days. I’m not saying I went to the beach for the day and came back cooked like a lobster, but an hour and a half of the environment at large shouldn’t call for sunscreen.

Think about weather; we can always check the Internet or television for real time updates on local weather. We pack umbrellas if it looks like those fronts are going to clash over us today. We put up shutters if the storm of the century barrels down upon our doomed town. We should be able to check the status of the infernal beast over our heads every day. NASA and other organizations spend good time and money pointing cameras at our local star, and yet we only hear of it when massive flares are being shot out. I don’t just want the weather when there’s a hurricane bearing down on me.

It takes light takes just over eight minutes to travel from the sun to the Earth. Yet, the solar wind that carries the high energy coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can take up to three days to reach earth. The CMEs consist of high energy ions, most of which gets deflected by the magnetic field generated by our planet’s molten iron core. When these waves of charged particles bombard our planet, people tend to notice; compass needles go haywire, the northern lights become prominent in new regions, radio communications get disrupted, and fair-skinned fellows get burned badly. In the worst recorded incident, the ‘Solar Storm of 1859’, telegraph lines burst into flames, shocking their operators. Imagine what it could do to today’s infrastructure.

There are some great websites pioneering the cause of space weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posts a collection of statistics on its website; There you can find the current degree of solar radiation and geomagnetic storms, as well as how affected you an expect your radio to be. Very useful, but contains one very error-prone part; me. I am not quite sure what to make of the relative intensity of the solar wind, or how it relates to the Earth’s magnetic field.

Let me put it this way: the Weather Channel doesn’t just put up the partial pressures of atmospheric gases and temperatures and let us figure out whether to bring an umbrella today or not, so why are they doing this for solar activity that can be predicted three days in advance? I just want one… call him or her a ‘local astronomer’, to get up on stage after they do the fog map to tell me how the sun is doing. Eventually, we will come to know the sun’s patterns and learn to operate around it just as we do with rain, wind, and other phenomena.

Until then, I guess I’ll just mow the lawn at the crack of dawn and wash the car at sunset. Also, the somewhere in there is a case to be made about shielding our sensitive infrastructure from such radiation.