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Integrating Space Weather and Meteorological Products for Aviation
By Genene M. Fisher
One might think that solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms are phenomena that only interest space scientists. However, conditions on the sun, in the solar wind, and within the Earth’s magnetic field, otherwise known as “space weather,” can affect a wide variety of ground and space technologies. For example, solar and geomagnetic events can impact satellite operations, navigation, space shuttle and space activities, high-altitude polar flights, electric power distribution, long-line telephone communication, high-frequency (HF) radio communication, and geophysical exploration. As the nation’s reliance on technological systems grows, so does our vulnerability to space weather. The aviation industry is just one of the many user groups that are trying to understand how space weather impacts their operations and what can be done to mitigate disruptions. Airlines are becoming more concerned with flying transpolar routes, losing HF communication, radiation hazards to crews, and the possibility of global positioning system (GPS) errors.
Many space weather hazards can be mitigated or avoided if reliable space weather forecasts are available. In response to this need, the federal government has formed the National Space Weather Program, an interagency program under the auspices of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology started in 1994, to “achieve an active, synergistic interagency system to provide timely, accurate, and reliable space environment observations, specification, and forecasts.” Currently, space environmental support services are provided by the NOAA Space Environment Center (SEC) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which jointly operate the Space Weather Operations (SWO) Forecast and Analysis Center. It is the national and world warning center for disturbances that can affect people and equipment working in space, and provides forecasts, warnings, and alerts of solar and geomagnetic activity to users in government, industry, and the private sector. NOAA/SEC is the official source of space weather alerts and warnings for commercial and public sector customers.
SPACE WEATHER IMPACTS ON THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY. In an effort to accelerate and maximize the effective use of space environment research results in operations, NOAA/SEC hosts an annual Space Weather Week conference of researchers, users, and vendors. The 2003 meeting was held 19– 22 May in Boulder, Colorado. A common theme throughout these meetings was that accurate, reliable, timely information on the space environment is growing in importance as our dependency on technology increases. For example, the aviation industry is concerned about risks during polar routes—disruptions in HF communications, GPS errors, and radiation hazards.
Space weather impacts on GPS are of great concern, because GPS applications and markets are growing rapidly (i.e., surveying, agriculture, offshore drilling, military, environment management, space applications, construction, and recreation). In particular, the aviation industry is concerned about space weather effects on the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a GPS-based navigation and landing system that will provide precision guidance to aircraft at thousands of airports and airstrips. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report on the vulnerability of the U.S. transportation infrastructure with regard to its reliance on the GPS. During a geomagnetic storm, the altitude of the lower boundary of the ionosphere changes rapidly and can introduce errors of several meters. GPS operates by transmitting radio waves from satellites to the ground, aircraft, or other satellites, and therefore it is sensitive to ionospheric changes due to geomagnetic storms.
Space weather is especially a concern for airlines that are flying commercial flights routinely over the polar cap. While it is already known that an increase in altitude means an increase in radiation, solar radiation storms can cause even more radiation exposure to passengers and crew in jets in the polar region. Geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts can all affect HF communications. Extreme radio blackouts can cause complete HF radio blackout on the entire sunlit side of the Earth for a number of hours. Pilots are especially concerned because they can lose communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC) centers on the Russian side of the Pole, which only have HF capability. Additionally, low-frequency navigation signals used by maritime and general aviation systems (Loran-C) may experience outages on the sunlit side of the Earth for many hours, causing loss in positioning. Understanding and forecasting these phenomena are important since there are already four polar routes being used by U.S. airlines and new services to Asia are being considered.
Currently, the SEC provides space weather scales (levels 1–5) for geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts. Typically, airline dispatchers review the NOAA/Space Environment Center’s “Space Weather Now” Web site (www.sec.noaa.gov/ SWN) and will not plan a polar flight if a level-4 solar radiation storm (“severe”) is active or expected. (Airlines also have the option of configuring their systems to receive space weather items of interest alongside conventional meteorological data and products they already receive via NWS circuits.) A severe solar radiation storm elevates the radiation exposure to passengers and crew at high latitudes and most likely will result in a blackout of HF radio communications through the polar regions with an increased likelihood of navigation errors. If problems are detected before departure, the Russian Far East route is selected. If a problem occurs before reaching the polar area, the flight is rerouted, which likely results in an unplanned fuel stop that adds hours to the trip. If the problem occurs after the aircraft has entered the area, the flight continues.
Many in the airline industry are also worried about radiation risks, and therefore the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recommended that airlines educate crews about radiation hazards. The FAA recommends occupational radiation limits for commercial aircraft crew. These include a 5-yr average dosage of 20 mSv yr−1, with no more than 50 mSv in a single year. The Sievert (1 Sv = 1 J kg−1) is a measure of potential harm from ionizing radiation. For a pregnant crew member, starting when she reports her pregnancy to management, the recommended limit for the fetus is an equivalent dose of 1 mSv, with no more than 0.5 mSv in any month.
The FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) offers information on how much galactic radiation dose is received on a flight between any two airports in the world. For example, for a flight between New York and Tokyo, the effective dose to an individual is approximately 67 µSv. The Center for Disease Control/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the FAA/CAMI continue to do research on radiation hazards in flight.
Economically, space weather is of interest to the airlines. During a Space Radiation Impacts Workshop hosted by the SEC before the annual Space Weather Week conference in 2002, Jay Bjornstad, international chief dispatcher for Northwest Airlines, said if a polar flight has to be diverted, the cost can be near $100,000. Therefore, airlines need information that is easy to understand, consistent, and in real time. If and when a space weather event is predicted or nowcasted, dispatchers and pilots want to know what is expected to happen, the magnitude of the event, when and where it will happen, and how long will it last. On the other hand, not all pilots want to know about solar or geomagnetic storms and would rather have the airline dispatcher relay information on where and when HF communication will fail.
During the workshop, several other needs of the airline industry emerged.
U.S. AIR FORCE: MAINSTREAMING SPACE. While the airline industry is asking for an integration of space weather and meteorological products, it is already occurring in the USAF. Brigadier General David L. Johnson—who at the time was director of weather, deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, USAF—discussed at Space Weather Week 2002 how the air force is “mainstreaming space at all levels.” This includes strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) provides both terrestrial and space environmental support for Department of Defense (DoD) operations. Significant space environmental events like solar flares, geomagnetic storms, charged particle emission, and ionospheric scintillation can impact key military capabilities such as HF communication, satellite operations, space object tracking, high-altitude flights, radar operations, and GPS. AFWA provides space weather observations, forecasts, warnings, and tailored products to mitigate the impact of space weather on DoD and national systems.
Johnson acknowledged that a paradigm shift is already taking place to embrace space weather and incorporate it into the USAF doctrine and daily operations. The USAF is planning, programming, and budgeting for space weather initiatives. They are incorporating space weather into the curriculum by including robust education for all officers and enlisted personnel. Information on space weather is becoming standardized as much as possible, including Web pages, training CDs, and customer support. The USAF is generating products necessary for operations and integrating space weather information into war fighter systems (i.e., maps on “hi flier radiation dosage”). They also modified flight weather briefings to include space weather inputs [i.e., impacts on HF communications and satellite communications (SATCOM)].
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE METEOROLOGICAL COMMUNITY? The airline and space weather communities are just beginning to discuss their needs and who can/should be supplying space weather information. There is a nascent space weather vendor industry offering specialized products. Many of these commercial space weather providers are listed on the SEC Web site (www.sec.noaa.gov/Vendors/ commercial.html). Space weather vendors typically have backgrounds in space physics, engineering, or meteorology. (Those with meteorology backgrounds usually gained space weather experience in the USAF.)
The meteorological community may have a role providing this service. At the 2002 workshop the participants clearly asked for new products and services, which could mean opportunities for meteorologists. The airline community would like meteorological and space weather products to be integrated. Dispatchers and pilots would like space weather information merged into the flight plan. Pilots want to see maps of weather turbulence zones incorporate where there might be radiation risks or loss of HF communications. Airlines would like nowcasting and forecasting products translated in simple terms and in airlinefriendly format.
Many of the 2002 workshop participants stated that the current SEC solar radiation storm scale is not as useful as they would like. They want information that is more directly applicable to their businesses and can be used in decision making. Many in the airline industry are asking for the SEC space weather alerts to be combined with the NWS information and placed on the same circuit. They would also like space weather and meteorological information to be put on a common Web site. The FAA is currently surveying the airline industry to find out what space weather information is used and what additional products and services are needed. Is there a role for the meteoro1523 NOVEMBER 2003 AMERICAN METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY | logical community in space weather? The meteorological community should be asking this question. Airline meteorologists are already involved to some degree in the coordination of space weather and terrestrial weather information. Incorporating space weather and meteorological services could be a role for the private sector and/or NWS. Private-sector meteorologists are already very good at knowing how to simplify scientific terms for the nonscientist user. They could be effective in helping to coordinate the manner in which space weather information is displayed to the end user at airlines. However, the meteorological community needs to be careful when entering an area for which they are not trained. Perhaps they should consider a paradigm shift such as the USAF is implementing. The community should consider if they want to redefine what encompasses “meteorology.”
The field of space weather is growing, especially as more observations and improved models are available. Space weather is at the stage meteorology was about 50 years ago. More industries are realizing their vulnerabilities to space weather and many of these end users already use weather and climate services (i.e., airlines, electric power, shipping, and agriculture). Space weather will undoubtedly become more important to society, and the meteorological community should consider how they want to participate.
If you would like more information on the AMS Policy Program or how you can help, please contact William H. Hooke, the program’s director, at 202-737- 9006, ext. 420, or or Stephanie Armstrong, AMS director of development, at 617-227- 2426, ext. 235.