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Protecting Ourselves from the Sun’s Fury. Magnetic Observatories and the USGS at Work Around the Clock

The world’s network of magnetic observatories is a group of organizations configured to measure variations in the earth’s magnetic field. Generally, their work focuses on using the time and space variations in the geomagnetic field as a diagnostic tool for understanding:

  • Internal structure of the earth. Long wavelength data reflect the tectonics of the earth’s interior (including plate boundaries) and magnetic properties of deep crustal rocks. In addition, other time-varying data provide clues as to the nature of the dynamic changes in the earth’s main magnetic field.
  • Dynamics of the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere. Fast, short wavelength changes are related to interaction with the solar wind (CME – coronal mass ejections). On earth, we witness these events as the auroral effect – produced when magnetic particles become trapped in the earth’s field lines and spiral downwards. The particles give off energy in form of light, resulting in beautiful colour displays in the northern polar hemisphere.

Other roles performed by magnetic observatories include:

  • Enhancing magnetic investigation and observation methods
  • Conducting studies for the prediction of earthquakes (i.e. high resolution studies to see squeezing of the earth / rock structure).
  • Performing investigations on volcanic activity (i.e. observation of magnetic property changes due to the changing state of rock to magma), such as the recent Mt. Etna eruption.

Developing Early Warning Systems to Protect Us from the Sun’s Fury

One of the most dynamic areas of interest is in using observatory data as a warning system to protect us from the sun. This interest reflects a number of occurrences in the last ten to fifteen years and the recognition of the sun’s ability to disrupt our increasingly high-technology, network-oriented global village.

Image courtesy of SOHO/ LASCO consortium. ( SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. Use of this image assumes
no endorsement of GEM products by SOHO or any consortium members.

Some of the most recent events, include:

  • The 1989 power disruption that knocked out power to power to 6 million people in Quebec and the Northern U.S. for 9 hours. To view an excellent resource describing the causes of disruptions and effects on electrical grids, click here.
  • Magnetic observatories located near the equator can give electrical utilities 50 to 70 hours of warning so that operators can protect their grids. Strategies, such as separating their electrical grids, help ensure that power is only affected in specific areas and prevented from propagating over entire grid (as occurred in the 1989 Quebec disruption).
  • Recent satellite disruptions. In the past decade, many more communication satellites have been placed in orbit to support cell phone, navigation and other systems. The dollar costs of satellite effects can also be significant including replacement costs on the order of $250 to $500m US, re-launching costs on the order of $250m US as well as the loss of revenue from system downtime. Earth-based observatories are now at work providing an early warning to operators to take sensitive systems off-line, thereby protecting sensitive components.

There are also additional effects to consider. To find out more, click here.

The USGS System At Work Around the Clock

As a key member of the global observatory network, the United States Geological Survey is uniquely positioned to lead in monitoring occurrences from both external and internal sources.

As Mr. Leroy Pankratz, Geophysicist and Observatory Operations Task Leader noted, “The USGS has one of the most extensive magnetic observatory systems on earth – stretching from Guam to Puerto Rico and as far north as Point Barrow, Alaska. We also maintain strong international collaboration with observatories at Vassouras, Brazil; the King George Islands in Antarctica and Alibag, India.”

Currently, the USGS is operating 14 observatories with a combination of fluxgate and proton precession magnetometers. Similar to GEM’s dIdD instrument in its measuring objectives, fluxgate magnetometers systems monitor variations in the magnetic field (i.e. changes in inclination, declination and horizontal, vertical and total intensity). Proton magnetometers serve to measure changes in the earth’s total field.

The USGS has been using single sensor and gradiometer GEM’s GSM-19s for several years for site studies. Developmental research has also been conducted by the USGS in conjunction with the Eotvos Lorand Geophysical Institute (ELGI) expanding on the concept utilized in the GEM’s dIdD system from a nearly one-meter diameter coil system to the present basketball sized system.

One of the GSM-19s will soon be running at Boulder, Colorado on a new Personal Computer Data Collection Platform (PCDCP). This new generation system will acquire geomagnetic data at sample rates of one hertz (1 sps) which replaces older DCP systems which were adapted from acquisition systems originally developed for stream flow measurement. The GSM-19 1-second data along with the fluxgate triaxial data will be Gaussian filtered to one-minute values for compatibility.

As noted by Mr. Pankratz, “The GSM-19 is effective for observatory applications because of its higher sampling rate (1 sample per second) and long-term monitoring stability”. A second installation is targeted this year for the USGS facility at Fairbanks, Alaska.

Increasing Interest in Observatory Systems

Mr. Pankratz indicated that there is increasing interest in magnetic observatory systems from a number of groups including the military — who have a keen interest in monitoring for purposes of sensitive military communication and navigation satellites as well as guidance systems in smart bombs and missiles

With this interest and knowing more about the potential of the sun’s fury to affect the delicate balance of our electrical, communication and human systems, we wish the USGS and the rest of the international magnetic observatory community continued success in their observatory efforts and research!

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