Think Wyoming Weather Is Volatile? It’s Nothing Compared To Space Weather

Longtime Wyoming climatologist Jan Curtis spends much of his time studying space weather. So does meteorologist Don Day. And the fantastic aurora borealis display we witnessed last month is just the tip of the iceberg.

AR
Andrew Rossi

June 16, 20247 min read

Wyoming climatologist Jan Curtis watching the aurora borealis at Glendo State Park
Wyoming climatologist Jan Curtis watching the aurora borealis at Glendo State Park (Courtesy Photo)

Wyomingites know that it's helpful to check the potentially volatile and roller coaster Cowboy State weather every day. But there's a lot more to "the weather" than what's outside your window.

There’s also space weather and how the superheated storms generated from the sun impact Earth and the rest of the space around it.

And even without an atmosphere in the vacuum of the universe, space weather can make the most violent storm here seem like a ripple in a bathtub.

Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day has made space weather part of his daily routine. It doesn't change the daily terrestrial forecast, but the sun's energy can have incredible global impacts.

"I check it daily, but not because I think it's going make it rain or snow different or cause of temperature change or cause thunderstorms," he said. "I won't change my forecast or make a storm track another way. But it is interesting when you watch what happens with the solar cycles and the responses that may happen with the weather and the climate in the long term."

There's been a lot of space weather to witness over the last year, including one of the best displays of aurora borealis in decades. It can be beautiful, but it's also more dangerous now than ever before for human civilization.

Otherworldly Weather

Space weather is the extraterrestrial phenomena that interact with Earth's atmosphere, usually originating from the sun. That's the short version of a complicated topic with many unknown and poorly known aspects.

"Space weather can mean anything from coronal mass ejection and solar flares and the things that happen with that to other things that are coming from something that's not earthbound," Day said. "It's not clouds, rain or snow coming from space, but there are things in space that definitely affect the Earth's atmosphere.

“So, when you put space and weather together, you know, that's where I think the term comes from."

Jan Curtis spent his career doing meteorology and climatology for the U.S. Navy, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also was the Wyoming State Climatologist from 2001 to 2005.

"We have our terrestrial weather in the upper atmosphere, which generally gets up to about 100,000 feet, roughly 20 miles or so," he said. "That's the realm of where weather occurs. When you get above that, you're getting into the realm of space weather, which is very much driven by what's going on with the sun. Our sun is a big heat engine for the Earth. It's very active, and it goes through cycles."

Coronal mass ejections are the most prominent type of space weather, as their interaction with Earth's atmosphere creates the colorful auroras that circle around and stretch across the planet from the Earth's poles.

Solar winds, geomagnetic storms and cosmic rays are also classified as space weather.

The aurora borealis, which was seen as far south as Hawaii last month, was a dazzling display of space weather. Curtis camped out at Glendo State Park to ensure he got the best photos he could.

"I spent the whole night taking movies and still images," he said. "That was my first opportunity to do that with digital photography instead of film, which I did in my old days up in Alaska. I was pleasantly surprised by that result."

A graphic showing how space weather works.
A graphic showing how space weather works. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Not So Harmless

Curtis classified auroras as a "mostly harmless" manifestation of space weather. The coronal mass ejection (CME) that created them was anything but.

"Elon Musk and everyone working in space breathed a sigh of relief that the solar storm didn't wipe out satellites, the Internet and communications," he said. "It can be like having a nuclear explosion in space."

Curtis explained that CMEs carry electrified particles from the sun that create a greater density in space when they hit the Earth's atmosphere.

That density can overwhelm the electronics on orbiting satellites, dragging them closer to the Earth, where they destabilize, burn up and lose their orbital capability.

"Starlink has over 6,000 satellites up there," he said. "It doesn't take very much to start disrupting their constellation for communication and support."

It's happened before. Day recalled an incident at the end of 2023 where Starlink lost a handful of satellites during an otherwise unremarkable CME and how a stronger CME could cause more widespread devastation.

"If you think about the number of satellites orbiting the Earth right now, it's huge," he said. "If a main communication satellite goes down, it can be critical. That could be a national security risk."

That's why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service established the Space Weather Center.

The agency monitors solar activity and issues watches, warnings and alerts whenever something cosmic is coming toward the planet.

"When you're putting your assets out there in space, and there's all these things going on out there, you've got to keep track of them without a doubt," Day said.

Space weather has been observed as a beautiful but mostly harmless phenomenon since the beginning of human civilization. Ironically, technological innovations have made space weather a potential threat to civilization.

"We're building more and more sophisticated electronics, both on earthbound and in space, hoping that they can mitigate any of these disruptions that can occur," said Curtis. "But I don't know if there's any way to protect ourselves. The sun is just such a powerful entity out there."

An illustration of the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere.
An illustration of the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. (Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Protective Shield

The terrestrial impacts of other kinds of space weather are debated.

Day said there is some "compelling research" that the fluctuations of cosmic rays, high-energy particles emanating from the sun, correlate with higher and lower periods of cloud cover across the globe. Still, it's not a universally accepted idea.

Curtis said some studies have suggested that high-altitude airplanes might be hit with more solar radiation while flying through thinner atmosphere, which might increase the risk of certain cancers in pilots and passengers. Again, there has yet to be a consensus on this theory.

Luckily, the Earth generates its own protective shield that protects the surface from space weather. Curtis said the atmosphere constantly blocks and diffuses extraterrestrial energy and gets stronger with each interception.

"We're very fortunate that the Earth has a protective shield around it," he said. "Strangely enough, when the sun is more active, the shield gets stronger, which is a good thing because we'd be fried with X-rays, gamma rays and cosmic rays. I don't think life would exist very long, or have gotten started at all, if it wasn't for Earth's protective boundary."

Nevertheless, Curtis and Day believe that there's much more to learn about space weather and its potential impacts on terrestrial weather, and many other aspects of life on Earth.

"In my opinion, there's a very myopic view of the Earth's weather and climate systems that seem to be earthbound, and I think that's incorrect," Day said. "I think there needs to be more emphasis and effort on learning some of these other things about space weather, and critically important to be having the folks running NASA and the Space Weather Center putting the assets in place to monitor this stuff."

The Space Weather Center's satellites and other monitors gave enough warning to prepare vulnerable electrical grids, other satellites and other sensitive systems for the intense surge of solar energy during last month's CME event.

But the sun is a potent force, and there'll always be some danger in its life-giving energy.

"I think the general public, in the back of their minds, should always be aware that if the internet is down worldwide in the future, it could be very much because of what the sun is doing," Curtis said. "We're probably overdue for some catastrophe with respect to what goes on the sun, and the realms of possibility are there, for sure."

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.