FHSU radar installation plays central role in monitoring latest solar storm

03/08/12 kb

HAYS, Kan. -- With the biggest solar flares in six years making news and causing concern around the globe, a facility at Fort Hays State University is paying dividends.

That is the SuperDARN radar arrays on FHSU grounds southwest of Hays. "Essentially," said Dr. John Heinrichs, chair of FHSU's Department of Geosciences, "it's a Doppler weather radar that looks at the highest levels of the atmosphere."

In an interview today, Heinrichs was monitoring data in real time from the effects of the solar winds on the ionosphere.

"In fact," he said, "I'm looking right now at the SuperDARN plots and we can see where the effects are strongest." This morning, that was north of Alaska, where there was a strong "anti-cyclonic rotation" (clockwise) in the ionosphere over Alaska and a strong counterclockwise rotation over Iceland.

"Our location was chosen because we are right in the middle of the United States," monitoring the upper atmosphere from Alaska to Iceland.

"It turns out that the places showing the most activity today are right in the beam field of the Fort Hays State radar," he said.

The Fort Hays State antennas were constructed in 2009 and 2010 on a site at the northeast corner of the intersection of Golf Course Road and 210th Ave. Each of the two low-power, high-frequency radars has a total of two dozen 56-foot poles that support wire antennas over 42-foot gaps. The FHSU radar facility is funded as part of an National Science Foundation program called MSI, or Mid-Sized Infrastructure.

The FHSU installation was part of a $6 million NSF grant to build pairs of new radars at sites in Kansas, Oregon, Alaska and the Azores. The overall MSI project is a collaboration involving a total of four institutions: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., as the lead institution; Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.; the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. FHSU's involvement is through the departments of Geosciences and Physics.

"These solar flares are like a big pulse of electrons and protons that are shot at the earth," said Heinrichs. "They actually cause the ionosphere to move -- they cause weather in the ionosphere, like we have down here."

Looking at the data this morning, Heinrichs said, he was seeing in real time indications that the ionosphere was, in places, moving as fast as 2,000 meters, or roughly half a mile, per second.

"I haven't seen movement this fast since we've been receiving data," he said. "Ordinarily, velocities would be half that or a little less."

He said that the impact on the earth of these most recent flares has turned out to be a little less than was expected. "It's a little bit weaker than people thought it would be," he said.

At a "K rating" of 5, this is not the strongest possible storm, said Heinrichs. In storms with an intensity of 9, he said, "We would be able to see auroras here in Kansas. But with 5, the best viewing might be only as far south as Minnesota or Michigan."

"Fort Hays State is definitely contributing to a major international effort to monitor the effects of these storms," he said. "And the fact is we can get real time data now. We can actually watch as it happens. So we're having a direct effect in the study of these storms and their effects on earth."

Earth's magnetic fields protect the planet's surface from getting direct impact, but they do cause damage to electronics, to satellites, to communications and air travel.

"There are cases on record that such storms caused such a load on telegraph lines that telegraph keys would melt and cause fires," he said.

Another benefit to FHSU is for academics. The university has a student intern to maintain the site, and the Department of Geosciences and the Department of Physics has access to real-time data and pictures to use in class.

"When we teach a class that's about the atmosphere, we can use this data," he said.

The student intern, Randy Ouellette, a Fort Kent, Maine, senior majoring in geography, said his main job is maintaining the site. "I basically upkeep the integrity of it," he said. "I make sure all the transmitters are up and running and working properly."

"It is a near perfect location for those antennas," he said,"but you have to battle the wind all the time."

He said it is a great opportunity to learn more about electronics in general and the physics of the upper atmosphere. "It's a great opportunity for any intern to get involved with a worldwide project like this," he said.

As for his career choices, that is a tough question, he said. "There are so many aspects to it. I would like to do something in environmental sciences, something that doesn't involve too many office hours, something that involves being out there in the field."

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