How citizen scientists help track space weather from Earth

By Danielle N. Duryea. Mentored and edited by Katya Zimmer.

In backyards and schools across the country, more and more Americans are joining scientists in a cosmic endeavor: to track the impacts of distant activities at the sun’s surface that can have serious consequences on Earth.

As the sun bubbles and burns, occasional storms erupt at its surface, releasing clouds that carry a magnetic field. Referred to as “space weather,” this can interact with Earth’s own magnetic field in ways that potentially disrupt regional power grids and wreak other kinds of havoc. A recent increase in solar storm activity has galvanized efforts to better understand and forecast these events, and citizen scientists and students across the country are now being asked to pitch in, scientists said during a panel discussion on February 19 at the 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting.

By setting up instruments, recording measurements, and analyzing data, members of the public are increasingly helping scientists gather more information about magnetic field conditions on Earth so they can ultimately make more accurate predictions about future space weather events.

“There has been a big effort to develop small magnetometers being deployed at schools and in citizen scientists’ backyards,” said Delores Knipp, a research professor at the University of Colorado, at the AAAS meeting.

Space weather events have a global effect on the Earth’s magnetic field, but “the impacts are incredibly local,” noted Jennifer Gannon, the vice president of research and development at Computational Physics Inc., which studies the effects of space weather on Earth and near-space. The changes to the Earth’s magnetic field depend on the geographic location and local complexities there, she explained in her presentation at the AAAS meeting. If a solar storm magnetic field happens to align with the Earth’s own in a certain way, that can cause problems for the power grid and other systems that rely on a stable magnetic field.

Efforts into monitoring and preparing for the effects of space weather began in earnest after a 1989 storm that left a large portion of Canada without power for nine hours. Magnetic field intensity is now measured at distinct points across the US, where northeastern states like Maine are at highest risk for the impacts of magnetic field disruptions. But more data is needed to better predict where and when such events could occur, so the field has called upon citizen scientists and schools to help.

One such citizen science project is Solar Stormwatch, in which anyone can help track space weather events by identifying solar flares in photos taken by the twin NASA spacecrafts known as STEREO. This mission has generated thousands of images, with a photograph being taken almost every 30 minutes since its launch in 2007—too much data for small numbers of experts to comb through. “What we wanted to do was to develop a system that helped share the workload and was also more reliable than relying on one expert user,” said Luke Barnard, a meteorologist at the University of Reading in the U.K., in an interview.

Though some people miss the mark on interpreting the images correctly, “even that data is helpful for us in understanding where we could have got the project set up better or understanding the difficulties in tracking these things,” he said. Some of his recent research demonstrates how data collected by citizen scientists have helped experts predict more accurately when solar storms will affect Earth.

This model of crowdsourcing data is also used by the project Aurorasaurus, where citizens can help monitor the activity of the polar aurora in real time. Since space weather can cause heightened auroral activity, the observations can be used to interpret current magnetic field conditions.

School programs that track space weather have also emerged in recent years, often taking a more hands-on approach. In 2019, for instance, the University of New Hampshire started a program for high schoolers called Space Weather Underground, in which they build magnetometers to track magnetic field changes across New England. Knipp added that while nonprofessional instruments may not always be perfectly calibrated, they can still provide meaningful data towards understanding the variability of solar storms.

Such projects are making increasingly helpful contributions to the field of space weather monitoring, Barnard said. “We all very much appreciate the effort [people] put into it because it’s hugely valuable data to us—to help both understand the physics and the science behind these phenomena, but also helping us to develop techniques to help forecast it.”

Danielle N. Duryea is a science writing student and biomedical sciences graduate student at the University of Florida. She is a microbiology nerd at heart, but also an avid enjoyer of all things science. You can email her at danielle.n.duryea@gmail.com.

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