What is space weather?

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What is space weather?
50s style rocket ship

Space weather describes the conditions in space that affect Earth and its technological systems. Space weather storms originate from the sun and occur in space near Earth or in the atmosphere. Space weather, like weather here on Earth, is continually moving and changing. Space weather phenomena include the Northern lights and solar radiation storms.

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, is produced by a stream of electrons that flow out from the sun towards Earth. Some of these charged particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the poles, accelerating as they move through Earth’s magnetic field. The most energetic of the electrons penetrate the atmosphere and collide with the nitrogen and oxygen atoms, charging the atom. When the excited atom returns to its normal energy state, it gives off red or green light. Near the South Pole, the same phenomenon is called aurora australis, the southern lights.

Solar radiation storms occur when the sun suddenly emits large amounts of energetic particles. These storms can affect communication on aircraft flying polar routes, where the storms are strongest. Strong X-ray emissions from the sun can also disturb the upper regions of our atmosphere and cause larger radio blackouts.

Because the effects of space weather can be beautiful or harmful, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors and issues space weather warning and watches – just like it does with Earth’s weather.

Steven A. Ackerman and Jonathan Martin are professors in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison, are guests on the Larry Meiller‘s WHA-AM radio show the last Monday of each month at 11:45 a.m.