Shop Windows to the Universe

Become a nitrogen atom in the nitrogen cycle in our Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit/Game. See all our games, activity kits and classroom activities.
Space weather storms can cause trouble on Earth. Strong storms can mess up radio signals, shut down electrical systems, and expose people to radiation.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy L. J. Lanzerotti, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, Inc.

How does Space Weather affect Earth and Human Society?

Although space weather forecasts are not normally featured on the evening news, space weather does impact life on Earth in many ways. Our modern, technologically complex systems - including communications, transportation, and electrical power systems - can be disrupted and damaged by space weather storms. Exposure to radiation can threaten astronauts and commercial air travelers alike, and has affected the evolution of life on Earth. Space weather probably alters the weather and climate on our planet, though we don't yet have a precise understanding of those influences.

Earth's magnetic field is our radiation shield. Our planet's magnetosphere keeps most of space weather's effects where they belong; safely out in space! Some radiation does, however, reach orbiting satellites and astronauts, people in aircraft, and sometimes even the ground. Energetic particles can damage satellites and shorten their lifespans. Radiation poses a hazard to astronauts and to the passengers and crew onboard commercial airline flights at high latitudes near Earth's poles. Mutation rates, partially driven by exposure to radiation, have influenced the evolution of all life on Earth.

Many aspects of our modern technology can be disrupted by space weather storms. Changes in the ionosphere alter long-distance radio signals and Global Position Systems (GPS). Strong magnetic fields can diminish the accuracy of compasses, disrupt magnetic prospecting, and even cause homing pigeons to go astray. The same magnetic fields can induce electrical currents at ground level that can destroy electrical power distribution grids, interrupt telegraphs, and even increase corrosion in pipelines.

Heat and light from the Sun play a dominant role in Earth's weather. It seems likely that variations in the Sun should cause changes in Earth's weather and climate. They probably do, but scientists aren't yet sure exactly how those connections work. Atypical periods in the Sun's 11-year sunspot cycle seem to correlate with severe cold snaps, though the correlations are imperfect. Large variations in the Sun's output of ultraviolet (UV) radiation over the course of the solar cycle influences the rate of production and destruction of stratospheric ozone. Solar and space weather variations may influence rates of cloud formation and the freezing of airborne water droplets. The Sun's multifaceted influence on Earthly weather is the subject of much continuing research.

Last modified February 26, 2009 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, classroom activities in The Earth Scientist, mineral and fossil specimens, and educational games!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Radiation

Radiation comes in two basic types: electromagnetic radiation transmitted by photons, and particle radiation consisting of electrons, protons, alpha particles, and so forth. Electromagnetic radiation,...more

The Earth's Magnetic Field

The Earth has a magnetic field with north and south poles. The Earth's magnetic field reaches 36,000 miles into space. The magnetic field of the Earth is surrounded in a region called the magnetosphere....more

Particle Radiation

One main type of radiation, particle radiation, is the result of subatomic particles hurtling at tremendous speeds. Protons, cosmic rays, and alpha and beta particles are some of the most common types...more

The Magnetic Field

The force of magnetism causes material to point along the direction the magnetic force points. As shown in the diagram to the left, the force of magnetism is illustrated by lines, which represent the force....more

Confused Homing Pigeons and Space Weather

Certain animal species on Earth (such as the homing pigeon) are able to detect Earth's magnetic field and use it for navigational purposes. Homing pigeons have been known to reach home by flying over 1,6...more

Space Weather Causes Currents in Electric Power Grids

Space weather causes electricity to flow in our atmosphere. Sometimes that electricity lights up the sky by causing the aurora (the Southern and Northern Lights). Electric currents in the atmosphere can...more

Space Weather Effects on Electrical Power Systems

Space weather "storms" can cause problems on Earth. They can even mess up our systems that make electricity and that deliver electricity to peoples' houses. Sometimes really big space weather storms can...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA