1. Introduction

"Space Weather" refers to conditions on the sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground -based technological systems and can endanger human life or health. Adverse conditions in the space environment can cause disruption of satellite operations, communications, navigation, and electric power distribution grids, leading to a variety of socioeconomic losses.

a) Background

Throughout history, people have stood in awe of the wildly changing patterns of the Northern Lights, the aurora. Normally seen only in the polar regions, these lights mystified observers by occasionally appearing far south of their usual location. In 1934, Bartels noticed that periodic disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field corresponded with the sun's rotation rate and postulated "M" regions on the sun as their cause. Once during World War II, radio operators in England were convinced they were foiled by enemy jamming when all HF radio communications ceased. All of these related events are early examples of the effects of "space weather".

Today, we have far more knowledge of the space environment, from the turbulent surface of the sun, with its continuous solar wind and periodic spewing of clouds of energetic ionized particles, to the protective boundary of the Earth's magnetic field, which provides a partial shield against deadly solar corpuscular radiation. The Earth's magnetic field is highly reactive to the onslaught of energy and pressure originating from the solar particles and fields. In a complex way, the Earth's magnetosphere redistributes its particle populations, often sending a rush of energetic particles along magnetic field lines into the atmosphere over the polar caps and creating the swirling red, green, and white auroras. Other particles pour into the Van Allen radiation belts and encircle the Earth in a ring of electric current. The Earth's magnetic field itself can distort to such an extent that compasses at the surface swing 10° away from the magnetic pole. The ionosphere--80 to 1000 kilometers above the Earth's surface--changes in ways that affect radio transmissions, absorbing some radio frequencies, distorting others, and creating electric currents that affect systems on the ground.


Two X-ray images obtained by the Yohkoh satellite showing the difference in the dynamic behaviour of the sun's surface between solar maximum and solar minimum conditions. Solar activity is indicated by the "sunspot number" calculated from a daily count of the number of sunspot groups and the number of individual spots observed on the sun.




The plot of annual averages of sunspot number reveals a clear pattern of cycles of approximately 11 years in length.


This fascinating and intricate picture of the connection between the sun and the Earth's space environment has been uncovered in the last few decades. However, our understanding of the physical processes that drive and couple this complex weather system in space is still rudimentary. In terms of the quantity of observations, basic understanding of processes, and physical models, our current knowledge of space weather is about as advanced as that of tropospheric weather over a half century ago. Meanwhile the Nation's reliance on technological systems is growing exponentially, and many of these systems are susceptible to failure or unreliable performance because of extreme space weather conditions. The risks involved could be mitigated or avoided if reliable space weather forecasts were possible and available with sufficient lead time or, in some cases, if representative, quantitative models were available to systems designers. But this is beyond the capability of today's space weather forecasting. Fortunately the technical skills, and to a large extent the means, are now available to move forward to provide dramatically improved space weather understanding, forecasts, and services. Moreover, the "information superhighway" makes it possible to collect and to disseminate nearly instantaneously any data or modeling result that is of interest to a user. Such a system is ripe for development, and the scientific, technological, and operational communities are ready for this challenge.

Currently, space environmental support services are provided through the Space Weather Operations of NOAA's Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado, and the 50th Weather Squadron at Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bulletins, forecasts, alerts, warnings, and data are routinely disseminated to a broad range of customers, including satellite operators, power companies, telecommunications operators, navigational systems users, and research institutions. In a broader context, the user community includes everyone who uses these services: the general public, industry, and the government, particularly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the military.

A series of recent workshops and meetings attended by members representing the military, commercial, and research communities has revealed the pressing need for improved space environment understanding and forecasting over many time scales--minutes, months, years. The National Space Weather Program will be built upon the idea that strong interaction among the various stakeholders is essential.

b) Purpose and Scope

This document outlines a strategy to guide the planning and implementation of a National Space Weather Program. The document describes the National Space Weather Program, its priorities and goals, the national customer base, and the strategic elements essential to an integrated, goal- oriented capability dedicated to serving national needs. The priorities and goals in this report form the frame of reference to which an implementation plan must cohere.

The National Space Weather Program will:

  • Assess and document the impacts of space weather
  • Identify customer needs
  • Set priorities
  • Determine agency roles
  • Coordinate interagency efforts and resources
  • Ensure exchange of information and plans
  • Encourage and focus research
  • Facilitate transition of research results into operations
  • Foster education of customers and the public

The Program includes the contributions of the user communities; operational forecasters; researchers; modelers; and experts in instruments, communications, data processing, and analysis. Guided by these inputs, this Strategic Plan was developed by representatives from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Commerce (DOC), NASA, and the Department of the Interior (DOI), as an official working group of the Committee for Space Environment Forecasting, Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research (OFCM).

c) Program Goals and Implementation

The overarching goal of the National Space Weather Program is to achieve an active, synergistic, interagency system to provide timely, accurate, and reliable space environment observations, specifications, and forecast within the next 10 years.

By building on existing capabilties and establishing an aggressive, coordinated process to set national priorities, focus agency efforts, and leverage resources, the National Space Weather Program provides the path to attain this goal.

The vehicle to implement and manage the Program is the National Space Weather Program Council within the OFCM. The Council consists of designated representatives from Federal agencies involved in space weather activities. Each representative is the official spokesperson for that agency on matters such as program scope, requirements, and resource commitments. The Council will establish policy, develop an implementation plan, focus and coordinate interagency efforts and resources, and approve interagency agreements developed within the scope of the Program. The Council will provide oversight and policy guidance to ensure common needs are met and the interests of each agency are addressed. Member agencies are responsible for planning, programming, and budgeting their own resources to meet agency obligations to the National Space Weather Program. This Strategic Plan and the follow-on implementation plans will establish the basic reference documents to guide the Program as it evolves.

The National Space Weather Program Goals
To advance To prevent or mitigate
  • observing capabilities
  • fundamental understanding of processes
  • numerical modeling
  • data processing and analysis
  • transition of research into operational techniques and algorithms
  • forecasting accuracy and reliability
  • space weather products and services
  • education on space weather
  • under- or over-design of technical systems
  • regional blackouts of power utilities
  • early demise of multi-million dollar satellites
  • disruption of communications via satellite, HF,and VHF radio
  • disruption of long-line telecommunications
  • errors in navigation systems
  • excessive radiation doses dangerous to human health

See related story: Hydro-Quebec Power Failure

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Chapter 2
Publications List