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Hazards: Geomagnetic Storms

8 minutes

During a magnetic storm, we have very beautiful displays of aurora at high latitudes. But there are also hazards associated with those magnetic storms. A large magnetic storm can interfere with radio communication, with GPS systems. They can interfere with the operation and orientation of satellites. During a large magnetic storm, high-altitude pilots and astronauts can be subjected to enhanced levels of radiation. And during a large magnetic storm, there are occasional power blackouts. Large storms can be an operational challenge and a hazard for the operation of electric power grids.

Magnetic storms are a hard concept to get one's head around. Essentially, they are a tremendous burst of energy coming from the sun. We might not feel that ourselves, but our electrical infrastructure absolutely does. Space weather starts with the sun. It's brought to earth by solar wind from the sun. The solar wind interacts with earth's magnetic field. Sometimes when the sun is disturbed, it can disturb the earth's magnetic field. It's a period we call a magnetic storm.

Geomagnetism is a very old science. Its history traces back to the discovery of the compass, which was, of course, useful for navigating the world's oceans. It is really nothing more than a magnetized needle, which can orient itself in response to the direction of the magnetic field. There are occasionally periods of time when the magnetic field of the earth is time-dependent. If you were to take your compass and carefully observe the direction that the needle was pointing, you would notice it's not always pointing the same direction. It's sometimes vibrating around and moving.

The National Space Weather Program organizes the work of the many federal agencies that are concerned with space weather. This work is important for our nation's economy and for our national security. Space weather is a variety of subjects which stretches from the sun to the earth. Different federal agencies have different responsibilities for different parts of that-- the physical whole of space weather. NOAA, NASA have responsibility for monitoring the sun. And they are also responsible for space-based monitoring of space weather. It's interesting. USGS has a very unique role. We monitor space weather from the ground. In effect, we are monitoring and exploring space without ever leaving the surface of the earth.

The USGS operates a network of magnetic observatories. They are distributed across the United States, including our territories in the Pacific and Puerto Rico. We monitor the magnetic field at these stations, these magnetic observatories, in real time. We measure the magnetic field every second. Data are transmitted back to our headquarters in Golden, Colorado, where we disseminate the data to our customers-- other federal agencies, private entities that are involved with the operation of technological systems potentially affected by space weather. These ground-based observatories provide critical information in terms of being able to understand the impacts of a magnetic storm. It comes down to the fact that our observatories are on the ground where all of us are. We need to understand the impacts on the earth's surface.

I'd like to emphasize two new projects that the USGS has recently undertaken. One is to provide real-time data for the oil and gas drilling industry. When you drill for oil, you don't drill straight down, you drill down and then out horizontally. To accurately know the direction of your drill bits, you have to have some understanding of the orientation of the drill bit. In the instrument package that typically follows a drill bit during drill operations, there is a small sensor which measures the direction of the earth's magnetic field. To know which direction you are actually going, you also have to compensate during magnetic storms because the direction of the magnetic field can change. So the USGS is involved with making simultaneous measurements of the earth's magnetic field at the surface to monitor the direction of the magnetic field, so that the directional drilling operations can be accomplished with accuracy. The other project that I wanted to mention is mapping geomagnetic hazards. This is a new project we have started which is important for the electric power grid industry. We want to help mitigate their operational challenges and hazards that are associated with magnetic storms. We are involved with making maps of magnetic activity, which are derived from data acquired by the USGS from its ground-based observatories. We are also mapping the nature of the earth's crust, so that we can construct maps of geomagnetic hazards that are useful for the electric power grid industry.

Space weather represents a hazard and a challenge for the operation of technological systems. This means that space weather is always going to be important for our modern society.

Funding to purchase and make this educational production accessible was provided by the U.S. Department of Education:

PH: 1-800-USA-LEARN (V) or WEB: www.ed.gov.

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Space weather can have important consequences for everyday life, such as interference with radio communication, GPS systems, electric power grids, the operation and orientation of satellites, oil and gas drilling, and even air travel as high altitude pilots and astronauts can be subjected to enhanced levels of radiation. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Geomagnetism Program monitors variations in the Earth's magnetic field through a network of 14 ground-based observatories around the United States and its territories, providing data in real-time to a variety of customers.

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