Friday, June 29, 2012

Towards a scientific understanding of the risk from extreme space weather

Towards a scientific understanding of the risk from extreme space weather

by S.-I. Akasofu and Y. Kamide,
Like all natural hazards, space weather exhibits occasional extreme events over timescales of decades to centuries. Historical events provoked much interest, and sometimes alarm, because bright aurora becomes visible at mid-latitudes. However, they had little economic impact because the major technologies of those eras were not sensitive to space weather. This is no longer true. The widespread adoption of advanced technological infrastructures over the past 40years has created significant sensitivity. So these events now have the potential to disrupt those infrastructures – and thus have profound economic and societal impact. However, like all extreme hazards, such events are rare, so we have limited data on which to build our understanding of the events. This limitation is uniquely serious for space weather since it is a global phenomenon. Many other natural hazards (e.g. flash floods) are highly localised, so statistically significant datasets can be assembled by combining data from independent instances of the hazard recorded over a few decades. Such datasets are the foundation on which reliable risk assessment methodologies are built. But we have a single instance of space weather so we would have to make observations for many centuries in order to build a statistically significant dataset. We show that it is not practicable to assess the risk from extreme events using simple statistical methods. Instead we must exploit our knowledge of solar-terrestrial physics to find other ways to assess these risks. We discuss three alternative approaches: (a) use of proxy data, (b) studies of other solar systems, and (c) use of physics-based modelling. We note that the proxy data approach is already well-established as a technique for assessing the long-term risk from radiation storms, but does not yet provide any means to assess the risk from severe geomagnetic storms. This latter risk is more suited to the other approaches, but significant research is needed to make progress. We need to develop and expand techniques to monitoring key space weather features in other solar systems (stellar flares, radio emissions from planetary aurorae). And to make progress in modelling severe space weather, we need to focus on the physics that controls severe geomagnetic storms, e.g. how can dayside and tail reconnection be modulated to expand the region of open flux to envelop mid-latitudes?

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