Space Weather

Space Weather

By: Warren Qualley

Most of us know about meteorology which, according to the Oxford Dictionary (, is defined as: The branch of science concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere, especially as a means of forecasting the weather. People also know weather which they define as: The state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc. However, what most people don’t know is that there is something called space weather. Oxford Dictionary’s definition of space weather is: Conditions in the region of space close to the earth, especially the presence of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles emitted by the sun, that can affect human activity and technology. 

So how did the “weather” get carried over into “space weather”? The short answer, at least in regard to aviation, can be found on a website from The American Meteorological Society ( which states, in part, the 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.”

It’s amazing how weather activities outside our atmosphere, can affect us. Even though earth’s weather forecast might seem clear, threats can still be out there. The three main hazards to aviation from space weather include disruption in High Frequency (HF) communications, satellite navigation system errors, and radiation hazards to humans and avionics. Fortunately, there is some predictability to these events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, CO, monitors solar activity and issues outlooks, forecasts and warnings of events. To mitigate the effects of the three hazards when they are predicted or present, airlines avoid high latitude routes (e.g. cross-polar) and higher altitudes.

Monitoring and predicting space weather is a high priority for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations body, which establishes the rules for global aviation. The World Meteorological Organization provides scientific input into this process as well, and those involved in all aspects of aviation continue to make flying safer from the effects of space weather.


Social media Summary: Almost all of us have heard of weather, but not everyone knows about space weather! Learn a little bit about the amazing nature of space weather, and how it can impact us here on earth.

Volcanic Ash and Aviation

Volcanic Ash and Aviation

By: Warren Qualley

In 1980, When all four engines on British Airways flight 9 in 1982 shut down, the crew was baffled. They couldn’t quite figure out what had happened. Shortly after the initial shut down, Captain Eric Moody, made the following announcement, which was a masterpiece of understatement: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” It turns out, that the shutdown was due to volcanic ash from Mount Galunggung. This volcano is about 100 miles southeast of Jakarta, Indonesia. The flight was near 35,000 feet (msl) when this occurred and drifted down to about 13,500 feet (msl) before the crew could re-start the engines. The full story can be found here:

Similar to Galunggung, Sarychev Volcano in Russia’s Kuril Islands is one of hundreds of volcanoes located in what is known as the Ring of Fire, which stretches nearly 25,000 miles around the Pacific Ocean basin. It arcs from near New Zealand through Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan across the North Pacific, the western U.S., Central America and down the west coast of South America. Here’s a link to short video of the 2009 eruption of Sarychev Volcano taken from the International Space Station: The ash is the grayish cloud, with the white clouds made up of water droplets.

The ash from volcanos can fill the sky for miles and can be extremely corrosive. It can damage windows, homes, and as it turns out, aircraft engines! The amazing meteorological effects of volcanic ash are one of the earth’s greatest phenomena’s, but also one of the scariest.

Fortunately, British Airways flight 9 did land safely in Jakarta and there were no injuries, but this event and others like it since underscore the danger of volcanic ash to aircraft. Therefore, countries around the world monitor volcanic activity and issue warnings so that these encounters with ash can be avoided.


Social media Summary: Most of us know about your typical weather, windy, rainy, and sunny, but what some people don’t know is that volcanic ash is also part of meteorology! Learn about volcanic ash and how it can impact normal everyday flights.

Automating Weather Balloons

Automating Weather Balloons

By: Marina Kobasiuk

Weather prediction depends on getting the newest and most accurate data possible, and with satellites around to help, it’s sometimes easy to forget how important local conditions are. This is why the National Weather Service still launches weather balloons on a regular schedule, twice a day, or more if severe conditions are on the way. As the balloons travel with their radiosondes up through the atmosphere they track temperature, humidity, air pressure, and other variables, which all get transmitted back to the ground. 

Doing this across the country allows the full vertical profile of the atmosphere to be observed at specific times. These current conditions inform predictions and future research so it’s vital for a NWS office to perform this well so any changes can be tracked. Wherever the local office is for your region you can bet they do their launches daily, and some offer tours of the experience so anyone from the public can see what this part of weather research entails!

But, human error happens, and many offices where balloons are supposed to be launched from are not pleasant locations to reside in for the long term. Alaska is home to a number of these more remote stations so NOAA is working on an improvement by automating the weather balloon releases. These autolaunchers are being put into place all across Alaska’s stations so they’ll only need to be restocked with materials every twelve days or so, depending on if extra balloons are used to analyse major weather events. Automation is intended to improve the data set Alaska provides to the NWS since fewer launches will be missed and all of them will be timed preciscely by computers, which takes human issues out of the equation. More reliable data will also hopefully lead to more accurate predictions nation wide as systems move inland from the west coast.

For more detailed discussion on the financial and career benefits of this change, NOAA has a full press release on the program, as well as an additional article on 6 benefits to the automation.

Summary: The National weather service is starting to implement automated weather balloon launches in Alaska. It’s a great look into the long term goals of improving data collection!

A look into Hail

A look into Hail

By: Aubrey Urbanowicz

Hail is ice falling from the sky, but hail happens during a thunderstorm, and thunderstorms are much more frequent in the warmer months. Typically larger hail will fall in thunderstorms in the late spring or early summer, that’s when it’s warm enough for storms to form, but there’s still enough cold air above the storm to form hail.

Hail forms in thunderstorms, and it’s typical to see small or pea size hail in a storm. 

But larger hail is considered severe and it can cause damage to homes, cars, livestock, agriculture, and even you!

The National Weather Service classifies hail as severe when it reaches 1 inch in diameter, which is hail about the size of a quarter.

The stronger the updrafts, as warm moist air rising quickly into a storm, the larger a hailstone can grow until it’s heavy enough to fall. Large hail is more common with supercells, which are rotating thunderstorms. That’s because supercells have a really strong rotating updraft.

Falling hail combined with fierce thunderstorm winds can cause severe damage. The bigger the hailstone, the faster it falls, and the more damage it can create.

Golf ball size hail, which is 1.75 inches in diameter, is large enough to put a dent in your car.  

According to the Insurance institute for business and home safety, hail creates about $1 billion dollars in damage a year in crops and property.

The largest hailstone in the U.S. fell in 2010 in South Dakota and was 8 inches in diameter. It also had a circumference of eighteen inches.

The record for the largest hailstone in Vermont is 3.3 inches in diameter, between a baseball and a softball, which fell in July of 2009.

Alabama set a state record for largest hailstone earlier this year. The diameter was 5.38 inches, larger than a grapefruit, and it fell on March 19, 2018.

All photos are from the National weather service. The SD ones are from NWS Aberdeen, and the Alabama hailstone is from NWS Huntsville.


Summary: Severe hail can create $1 billion of damage each year! Learn about some of the largest hailstones and how they form.




Cassini, The Great Explorer

Cassini, The Great Explorer

By: Jenna Hans

More than 20 years ago, NASA launched Cassini, a spacecraft that would give insight into an entire new world. Cassini spent almost 20 years in space exploring Saturn, its rings, moons, and magnetosphere. According to NASA JPL, Cassini observed Saturn’s unique hexagonal jet stream. The jet stream is a bit of a mystery since scientist don’t know exactly why it flows the way it does. Cassini also recorded lightning on Saturn, hurricane like storms, and since Saturn’s “30 year storm” came 10 years early, scientists were able to get an amazing look at the storm.

Throughout its mission, Cassini also discovered interesting things about Enceladus and Titan, two of Saturn’s moons. The spacecraft was able to discover geysers on Enceladus, the icy ocean moon. After this mission, Enceladus has become a point of interest planet where scientist think life might exist. On Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini found methane pools and evidence that there might actually be an underground ocean on the moon.

During its almost 20 years of space exploration Cassini discovered and photographed things that people could have never even dream of. It opened our eyes to brand new and exciting information and leaves us all wondering what else is out there waiting to be discovered. In its last moments, after almost 20 years of exploring the depths of space, Cassini began its descent toward Saturn where it burnt up and was destroyed. Committed to science and exploration, Cassini sent in information and data up until its final moments, making the ultimate sacrifice for science. The amazing feats of Cassini remind us of the doors that technology can open for us, and just how amazing life beyond our planet really can be.

See Cassini’s total timeline here:

Read more about Cassini’s discoveries here:

See the full gallery of Cassini’s images:



Nuclear Radiation and Aviation

Nuclear Radiation and Aviation

By: Warren Qualley

Like a lot of aspects that circle our daily lives and the environment, nuclear radiation and aviation is an area which by its nature, of being transported in the atmosphere, has become a part of meteorology.

The accidental (or intentional) release of nuclear radiation into the atmosphere is a very emotional issue. The first occurrence was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Ukraine in 1986. (1)  From an airline perspective, the main concern was the safety of passengers and the potential, but unknown impact on aircraft. The fact that humans can’t smell or see radiation yet know that it can be deadly makes it very frightening.

In the wake of the accident at Chernobyl, scientists had to get weather data for that region, and then plug that into computer dispersion models to get a 4-dimensional view of its radiations likely trajectory. Airlines needed to know the areas on the ground and in the sky to avoid an encounter with the radiation “cloud”.

More recently, the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan was another example of an ominous cloud of radiation that presented risks to aviation. One of the biggest challenges in this and other similar events was getting ongoing accurate and timely information, which the computer dispersion models required. The governmental authorities are responsible for the flow of the information, yet they are concurrently busy with assisting the victims and containing the hazard. Commercial airlines were in constant contact with the authorities in these events and always acted conservatively to ensure the safety of their passengers and employees.

More will be learned from these events, with the goal of protecting people. There are currently developed technologies such as the MeteoSwiss which operates the CN-MET wind analysis and forecasting system for nuclear incidents in Switzerland and neighboring countries. (2) The accurate measurements and high-resolution model forecasts allows for determinations of wind fields and weather developments around Switzerland’s nuclear power stations and those in neighboring countries and thus to calculate the dispersion of contaminated air masses. This type of technology allows for the safety of those that would be in the path of harmful radiation clouds after a nuclear accident.





Weather, Climate, and Volcanoes

Weather, Climate, and Volcanoes

By: Marina Kobasiuk

With the volcanic eruption in Guatemala headlining on the news now, along with the continued fissures in Hawaii, there is considerable talk on the effects of volcanoes on weather and climate. The immediate concerns with local weather is usually related to rain and clouds as precipitation becomes harder to predict with ash helping clouds form. Acid rain can also begin to occur, along with other shorter term conditions that result from large amounts of debris in the air, according to the United States Geological Survey. As sulfuric acid released into the air dissolves into water it creates an acidic precipitation that can impact soil and waterway acidity, or cause gradual erosion of other structures. Dust and ash can also cause volcanic smog which is a major health concern for people near any eruption or downwind of one. This is one of the major concerns in Hawaii due to so much magma interacting with ocean water and producing toxic haze.

Meanwhile in Guatemala it has been pyroclastic flows, a massive cloud of ash, lava, and toxic gases all at intensely high temperatures, that have caused the majority of damage so far. But with these effects also come sediment depositions that enrich soil with nutrients for crops that make farming more viable in certain areas. And even aesthetically, some of the most interesting sunrises and sunsets on record occur in the days and weeks after an eruption as ash interacts with clouds and sunlight.

In the long term, volcanoes are thought to be influencers in shifts in climate. In any kind of eruption lots of gases and physical particles are expelled into the air. While some break down or fall back to the surface eventually, with more violent eruptions some of these particles can reach high levels of the atmosphere and remain for years. Physically dust and ash can prevent sunlight from reaching the planet and cause a cooler environment, but on the opposing side greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide released by volcanoes can also absorb and emit heat back down to the planet, creating a warming trend. This makes the exact influence of a volcano hard to pin down.

These long term effects are more gradual since a volcano releases a relatively small amount of all of these pollutants due to it being a single isolated event, and the planet is often able to adjust with only moderate shifts. On record there are connections between large scale eruptions and major climate shifts, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and the almost half a degree Celsius drop some regions saw after. So observing these two events happening close together will be difficult, but the effects on the regions local weather and the climate shifts for the coming seasons will be important to watch to see how these changes influence the planet.

Summary: There are two major volcanic events happening currently, so here’s a brief look at weather, climate, and how they relate to eruptions.