Hazards: Geomagnetic Storms

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Detailed Description

Space weather can have important consequences for our lives, such as interference with radio communication, GPS systems, electric power grids, the operation and orientation of satellites, oil and gas drilling, and even air travel as high altitude pilots and astronauts can be subjected to enhanced levels of radiation. It is also during magnetic storms that beautiful aurora borealis — or "northern lights" — are visible at high latitudes. The USGS Geomagnetism Program monitors variations in the Earth's magnetic field through a network of 14 ground-based observatories around the United States and its territories, providing data in real-time to a variety of customers.

Video Sections:

  • What is Space Weather?
  • Discovery of the Compass
  • Start with Science
  • USGS Expertise
  • Drilling Operations and Power Grids
  • Continued Challenge


Episode Number: 187

Date Taken:

Length: 00:07:33

Location Taken: Reston, VA, US


Jeffrey J. Love: During a magnetic storm,
we have very beautiful displays of aurora

at high latitudes.

But there are also hazards that are associated
with those magnetic storms.

A large magnetic storm can interfere with
radio communication, with GPS systems.

They can interfere with the operation and
orientation of satellites.

During a large magnetic storm, high altitude
pilots and astronauts can be subjected to

enhanced levels of radiation.

And during a large magnetic storm, there are
occasional power blackouts.

Large storms can be an operational challenge
and a hazard for the operation of electric

power grids.

David Applegate: Magnetic storms—they are
a hard concept to get one's head around.

But essentially we are looking at a tremendous
burst of energy coming from the Sun.

We might not feel that ourselves, but our
electrical infrastructure absolutely does.

Jeffrey J. Love: Space weather starts with
the Sun.

It's brought to the Earth by solar wind from
the Sun, and the solar wind interacts with

the Earth's magnetic field.

Sometimes when the Sun is disturbed, it can
therefore cause the Earth's magnetic field

to be disturbed.

It's a period of time we call a magnetic storm.

Jeffrey J. Love: Geomagnetism is a very old
science, and it traces its history back to

the discovery of the compass, which was of
course useful for navigating the world's oceans.

It is really nothing more than a magnetized
needle, which can orient itself in response

to the direction of the magnetic field.

It's quite interesting, there are occasionally
periods of time when the magnetic field of

the Earth is time dependent.

And that means that if you were to take out
your compass and very carefully observe the

direction that the needle was pointing, you
would notice that it's not always pointing

the same direction.

It's sometimes kind of vibrating around and

Jeffrey J. Love: The 
National Space Weather Program organizes the

work of the many federal agencies that are
concerned with space weather.

This work is important for our nation's economy
and for our national security.

Space weather is a variety of subjects, which
stretches from the Sun to the Earth.

Different federal agencies have different
responsibilities for different parts of that,

the physical whole of space weather.

NOAA and NASA have responsibility for monitoring
the Sun and they are also responsible for

space-based monitoring of space weather.

It's interesting though, the USGS has a very
unique role.

We monitor space weather from the ground.

In effect, we are monitoring and essentially
exploring space without ever leaving the surface

of the Earth.

Jeffrey J. Love: The USGS operates a network
of magnetic observatories.

They are distributed across the United States,
including our territories in the Pacific and

Puerto Rico.

We monitor the magnetic field at these stations—at
these magnetic observatories—in real time.

We measure the magnetic field every single

Data are transmitted back to our headquarters
in Golden, CO, where we disseminate the data

to our customers—other federal agencies,
private entities—that are involved with

the operation of technological systems that
could be affected by space weather.

David Applegate: These ground-based observatories
provide critical information in terms of being

able to understand the impacts of a magnetic

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that
our observatories are on the ground and that's

where all of us are as well.

So we need to understand what are the impacts
on the Earth's surface.

Jeffrey J. Love: I'd like to emphasize two
new projects that the USGS has recently undertaken.

One is to provide real-time data for the oil
and gas drilling industry.

These days when you drill for oil, you don't
drill just straight down.

You drill down and then you drill out horizontally.

In order to do that accurately and to know
where your drill bits are headed, you have

to have some understanding of the orientation
of the drill bit.

In the instrument package that typically follows
a drill bit during drill operations, there

is a small sensor in there which measures
the direction of the magnetic field of the


But to know which direction you are actually
going, you also have to compensate for the

fact that during magnetic storms, the direction
of the magnetic field can change.

And so the USGS is involved with making simultaneous
measurements of the Earth's magnetic field

at the surface to monitor the direction of
the magnetic field so that the directional

drilling operations can be accomplished with

The other project that I wanted to mention
is mapping geomagnetic hazards.

This is a new project which we have recently
taken on and which is important for the electric

power grid industry.

We want to help mitigate their operational
challenges and hazards that are associated

with magnetic storms.

So we are involved with making maps of magnetic
activity, which are derived from Data acquired

by the USGS from its ground-based observatories.

We are also mapping the nature of the Earth's
crust so that we can construct maps of geomagnetic

hazards that are useful for the electric power
grid industry.

Jeffrey J. Love: Space weather represents
a hazard and a challenge for the operation

of technological systems, and this means that
space weather is always going to be important

for our modern society.