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Modeling Space Weather - Windows to the Universe

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The Earth's magnetosphere as depicted by a computer model, showing a geomagnetic storm in January 1997.
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Image courtesy of the Space Plasma Physics group (with help from the Advanced Visualization Laboratory) at University of Maryland.

Modeling Space Weather

Scientists who study space weather make extensive use of computer models to make sense of complex phenomena. This is a way in which space weather is quite similar to Earthly weather, for weather forecasters on our planet also employ sophisticated models to predict weather and climate.

Space weather researchers must fuse together separate models covering the Sun's interior, the solar atmosphere, interplanetary space, Earth's magnetosphere, and Earth's atmosphere. These separate models must mesh smoothly at their borders.

Predictions generated by models should match data from actual events. Scientists compare results from models with real events to verify the accuracy of their models, fine tuning the evolving models as they go. Successful models generate data that matches well with reality in a wide range of circumstances. Some hybrid models blend actual data with the models' predictions.

What are space weather models used for? One use is forecasting and prediction. If we observe an event of the Sun, a model can predict its impact near and on Earth. When a big space weather storm is coming, we can warn spacewalking astronauts, put orbiting satellites into "safe" modes, prepare electrical power grids for voltage surges, and anticipate spectacular auroral displays. Models can also help us improve our understanding of natural phenomena and the laws of physics by taking advantage of a natural laboratory that produces conditions, such as high temperatures, powerful magnetic fields, or large distances, that are unattainable in Earthly laboratory settings. Improving our understanding of physical laws in extreme conditions often aids our ability to better apply those laws in more mundane settings. Finally, model "runs" with specific settings, when compared with data from similar actual events, help us refine and improve our models for future use.

Last modified January 27, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF