How space weather affects energy infrastructure

Daniel Welling, assistant professor of physics

A space physicist from The University of Texas at Arlington has received funding from a university in New Zealand to study the impact of space weather on that nation’s energy infrastructure.

The $997,432 award from the University of Otago will allow Daniel Welling to collaborate with an international team of researchers that aims to improve the forecasting and mitigation of the effects of coronal mass ejections—explosions of plasma from the sun into the solar system—on earth’s magnetic field and technological systems.

“When a coronal mass ejection launches from the sun’s magnetic field, it can impact earth’s atmosphere within 18 to 48 hours,” said Welling, assistant professor of physics. “The warning system for space weather isn’t as advanced as the one we have for our weather predictions. We have very little warning time to prepare for the disruptions that a coronal mass ejection could cause.”

As solar flares collide with earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, they drive electric currents through the earth’s surface. Electrical grids provide receptive channels for these geomagnetic currents, which can cause disruptions of power supplies and potential blackouts.

“The fear that keeps space weather researchers awake at night is a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859, the largest geomagnetic storm on record,” Welling said. “A solar event of similar magnitude today would cause widespread, extended blackouts around the world.”

Welling and research assistants from UTA will adapt and improve space weather modeling to test forecasting capabilities specific to New Zealand’s energy infrastructure and support the rest of the research team with numerical simulations. Collaborators from Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and New Zealand will contribute to the project.

“The implications of our research will have an international impact,” Welling said. “Our findings will improve the knowledge and the accuracy of forecasting for governments around the world.”

Morteza Khaledi, dean of the College of Science, said national and international awareness of the impact of space weather is increasing, as shown by the passage of the PROSWIFT Act, which designates space weather research and operations responsibilities to numerous U.S. agencies.

“The new policy signified the urgency of our preparation for these geomagnetic events,” Khaledi said. “The College of Science is proud to be the home of several talented space physicists who contribute to our understanding of these global phenomena through international collaborations.”

Welling said the research conducted in New Zealand could directly inform emergency planning in Texas.

“We will explore worst-case scenarios,” Welling said. “The impact of space weather on lower-latitude regions, such as Texas, are insufficiently understood. Using our data, we could evaluate the types of physical processes that must occur to disrupt the state’s electrical systems, thereby improving Texas’ forecasting and mitigation efforts.”

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