Most people recognize that meteorologists study the weather here in our own atmosphere, but on occasion, when I tell a stranger that I’m a meteorologist, I get asked about meteors. While, it’s not my specialty, what happens in space is of interest to me. There are times when what happens in space effects the earth’s atmosphere in a noticeable way. In those cases, we have the study of space weather, which is defined as what happens in the outer levels of our atmosphere and near earth space.
Solar flares are a good example of a topic covered by space weather. The sun’s activity has a great effect on our daily lives – some days more than others. When directed toward earth, a strong solar flare – an eruption of energy ejected from the sun into space – can have dramatic effects here.
One such effect is the magnificent aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. It’s rare to see them at the Triangle’s latitude, but with a strong solar flare at the right angle, it does happen on occasion. A more widespread effect is the potential for disruption in radio communication, our power grids, and satellite failure. Again, these only happen with the stronger flares, but they can happen. A third, lesser known problem that can arise from a strong flare is an increased exposure to radiation by airline passengers in the higher latitudes. While the radiation is only about the strength of an x-ray in a doctor’s office, some people can have resultant health problems from this exposure.
If you do an internet search for "space weather" this week, you’ll probably find articles about an asteroid that will be unusually close to earth as it passes on February 15th. Astronomers are expecting it to be about 17,200 miles above us at its closest point. By comparison, satellites in high earth orbit are approximately 22,236 miles above the earth. This asteroid the size of a football field will be passing closer to us than our farthest satellites! But don’t worry. NASA scientists are not expecting it to hit the earth or any of our satellites.
While it shouldn’t affect our weather, it is something of interest happening in near space, so even meteorologists are watching. The lucky ones will be able to see it given the right timing and weather conditions.