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2010 Odyssey Two: Space Weather

Festive gingerbread 'helpers'

The cookies are baked, the turkey/veg-burger (goose) is cooked, the Christmas pudding has been scoffed and the Festive Season is still with us. Not only that, Mother Earth seems to be taking charge, so we may have to stock up on a few more supplies and stores to see us through: it may be some time before this cold snap is out.

I am being a little self-driven here, but the temperatures in Northern Scotland recently have been a little more akin to Estonia and the temps in Estonia rather more like Scotland. Estonia had a rapid freeze over Christmas, but by Boxing Day it was blazing sunshine and thawing. We in the northern isles, on the other hand, had a solstitial temperature of -16ºC (approx. 25ºF) and more snow descended. One day of sunny plus degrees and then a refreeze. It’s down to minus something awful again tonight.

It all has something to do with that great author Arthur C Clarke who first predicted a new civilization with his 2001: A Space Odyssey and then followed it with the lesser-known sequel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Or, it could just be that dreaded winter high pressure over Iceland.

All summer long we prayed, begged, cajoled the elementals in Mother Earth’s atmospheric arsenal into giving us a high pressure over Iceland. These little devas may have been listening but they weren’t about to hand one over. A high pressure over Reykyavik in July and August just about guarantees the eastern and northern portions of the Scots peninsula temperatures like you would not believe!

We did have one tiny blip; I do remember. It came and hovered over this long-forgotten plain for two weeks around the time of Wimbledon. I remember this because when it’s Wimbledon, they are serving strawberries to the punters in the interval while the rest of us are craving the taste, the whiff of that red juice; our gardens are trying their best to ripen the much sought-after fruit, and it usually comes two weeks later after everybody has forgotten who won.

Not this year.

When Wimbledon was being served strawberries, the huge luscious berries in my strawberry bed were at their ripest. They were more delicious than any I can remember. So, some of us poor misguided souls thought the summer of 2009 was going to be another nine on the global-warming scale of one to ten.

It was short-lived.

I am not ungrateful. Those berries tasted so delicious, I can sense the tingle in my mouth even now. But two weeks after Wimbledon, two weeks into the height of strawberry harvest, we in Scotland were plunged into rain. And it rained from the end of July until the end of November and then the snow came. I think you might call that a little unfair of Santa’s little helpers in the department of the stratosphere over Iceland.

I should explain.

Stylized Jet Stream flows

The jet stream, just like the Gulf Stream, whooshes perennially by these shores. It arrives from the west and comes in a kind of wavy motion, following the temperature boundaries where, for example, cold from the polar Arctic region meets warmer air masses from the tropics. Jet streams are caused by a combination of atmospheric heating – solar radiation – and the earth’s rotation on its axis. The main commercial relevance of the jet stream, naturally, is in air travel, as flight time can be dramatically affected by either flying with or against the jet stream.

Meteorologists use the location of the jet stream as an aid in weather forecasting. But, as we know, weather is no longer predicted as you and I do it, looking at the sky and feeling the wind change; cloud-watching; most weather forecasting nowadays is predicted by computer with numbers on charts.

Forecast for the first week of January 2010, courtesy Unisys


But there is something comforting about looking at a temperature gauge or a barograph or barometer and seeing the wavy line change from low to high. If the movement is rapid, excitement is tangible: good weather is on its way.

This is where the high pressure comes in. High pressure attracts warm and warm brings clearing skies and clearing skies make clouds disappear, dissolve, evaporate and we get that yellow glowing thing in the sky called the solar orb, sunshine. I know, I sound as if I haven’t seen it since July. It is almost true.

A high rotates as a cyclone with isobars travelling in a clockwise direction; northerly air stream (wind from the north) heralds the end of a low pressure and the start of a high; ; So when a high pressure sits overhead, in the cyclonic centre it is a still, clear day. High pressures centered over Iceland tend to sit; generate another friendly high and sit again. So the northern isles of Great Britain benefit by osmosis. By contrast, if the high pressure of June, July and August lingers (as it did throughout the summer of 2009) over the Bay of Biscay, then the edge of the high is too far away from our northern shores and all we get is the edge spin, suggested above: the following edge of a counterclockwise low drags after it a high; and conversely the following edge of a high brings an anticyclone low. Bay of Biscay high equals northern Scotland low, low low. That translates as cloud: rain, rain, and more rain.

July through November the lows bred more lows and hung over us like a meteorological hangover.

Arctic illusion or high pressure reality: snow in the North

Now, rather late on the scene, the high pressure has arrived; and because it is winter, those clear open skies are so clear and open we are receiving Arctic conditions daily. No cloud to keep the temperature from falling. Below zero freezing conditions more usual in eastern Europe at this time of year. Snow-clad landscape; white mountain ranges sparkling in clear air fifty miles distant.

At times like this our forebears would gather round the fire after a splendid seasonal feast and tell stories. Nowadays, of course, there is tele: and after New Year, if the snow is still with us (forecast is for it to continue) there will be more TV: for our American cousins and for those with satellite reception it will be Rose Bowl season: days on end of watching the sport of bling: football. I don’t begrudge the fans: we all need something to exercise the mind when the body is hibernating and adjusting to the rigours of winter.

We as a society have become near-immune to what is called in meteorological circles ‘severe weather’. But let’s think about that for a moment.

We have been subject lately to some pretty severe space weather. I heard (but it’s only a rumour) that another solar surge is on its way. We know that during the current solar minimum sunspots are infrequent, but, like the unexpected flare which took us by surprise on July 7th this year, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can play havoc with our geomagnetic systems. Now that we are (practically) all on the same grid (electrical, telecommunications, satellite, computer, transport, GPS navigation), power-driven systems are extremely susceptible to solar storms. It’s not just snow freezing the light cables and clogging the plumbing: a mass power failure would not be a good thing while temperatures are as low as they are at present. We might suddenly come to the scary realization that the wall is very thin between us who are dependent on our winter heating systems for warmth and the homeless man lying wrapped in newspaper under the freeway.

Let’s look, just for example, at the strongest geomagnetic storm on record: the Carrington Event of September 2nd, 1859.

Auroral oval over Europe

This CME is named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the solar flare with unaided eye while projecting an image of the sun on a screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the solar explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocked technicians and set fire to their telegraph papers. Aurora Borealis, (Northern Lights) spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.

God forbid we should have another Carrington Event. We are ill-equipped as it is. In Northern Scotland, where there is no such thing as a motorway, autostrada or freeway, it takes council services all their time to grit icy roads to fragile outlying communities. People’s boilers and gas central heating break down and service technicians can’t reach remote districts because roads are impassable. This is what our society now expects: instantly accessible power; we are failure- and breakdown-intolerant. We do not expect the unexpected and yet the signs around us all point to Mother Nature giving us a shakedown.

I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones: in that I have a winter store of homegrown vegetables, chickens that lay when it’s not too bitter, and an accessible supply of wood and (dare I say it, that politically-incorrect fuel): coal. If we get a severe storm warning, either earth weather or space weather, I shall, with angelic help, get by. I am not so sure about the flimsy-skirted, T-shirted commuter driving home in her mini without her winter boots, a hat or gloves, who gets caught out in the snowstorm or marooned in a drift.

If the devas are showing us signs of natural occurrences as we enter that long-heralded epoch beginning in twenty-ten, to keep us on our toes, may I suggest we prepare ourselves for what might be a year to remember.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | environment, gardening, nature, organic husbandry, seasonal, sun, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Solstice: It’s About Light

Aurora borealis or Northern Lights

As December moves towards the shortest day, we all panic a little. It’s not the present-wrapping still to do, the festive mince pies to bake, the cards to write: though those and other events on the to-do list seem endless and we’ll never get it done.

We will. That’s the point: we’ll get there.

But there is something else. Somewhere deep in the collective unconscious (thank you Carl Jung) there is an unfounded fear that when the shortest day arrives, the sun will not only stand still but may never rise again. That may sound crazy to someone who doesn’t look up at the sky much; who sees ‘light’ as something akin to the strange offerings on Photobucket under that search item: a neon tube.

But there are others among us, myself included, who look to the skies in these fast diminishing days and wonder if the light will return. I miss it so. In the so-called temperate zone, we lose the light at a rate of roughly four minutes per day until December 21st, when the sun ‘appears’ to stand still. And then it turns round and light increases at the same rate until equinox. I blogged last week about how the light-deprived Scots celebrate solstice in Burghead at the latitude of Alaska. No Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for them

The Norwegians, too, know all about that latitude: over half their huge country lies north of the 57º parallel. In Murmansk, on the White Sea, they keep the street lights on from October until April. They’re not just street lights either, they are specially formulated UV, designed to trigger serotonin in the SAD population and offer some hope to a city starved of sun for five months of the year.

Yes, serotonin is the hormone secreted by the human brain in the process of joy. It’s what we as a species need to keep going. Joy and light. And at this season when all the shops are declaring it is time to be ‘merry’, joy may be hard to find, unless we consciously engender it.

So it may be relevant to fostering a little joy that I give you a small ditty which appeared in today’s Daily Mail and one which the people of Norway are still pondering over.

I won’t add the comments from the unbelievers (failed Russian spacecraft, holographic searchlight); the positive view is that it is – in the middle of Arctic winter – a light in the sky. Not exactly aurora borealis, but something electromagnetic and atmospherically-unusual. A spiral of light in the sky. There’s hope.

Light over Tromsö, Norway

Aurora, now. That’s another delight we may witness at our latitude if we’re lucky, at this dark time of year. It might even be seen as a magical mechanism devised by solar wind and earth’s magnetosphere to whisper awe into our unresponsive consciousness.

But to stand on a hill on a starlit night, hot water bottle wrapped round kidney region, three scarves and wool hat in place, furry boots and six layers of woolly jumpers over frail human body, and watch as the firmament wheels for an hour in cathedrals of light, is something not to be missed.

For that I will go through another dark winter in this wild northern latitude.

On January 12 last year the population of Siguida, Latvia experienced the light equivalent of an ice storm: over the city’s streets hovered a cloud of light which then descended into pillars. Scientists attributed the columns of light which hung suspended in air for more than five minutes to frozen crystals of water or minute particles of ice. But to a child it must have looked like a winter fairy’s magic wand had waved.

Ice pillars of light over Latvia last January

There will always be the view of the jaded reporter, the overworked NASA scientist, the prosaic explanation of a failed Russian nuclear test to write off phenomena like these.

I fancy the childlike fairytale explanation myself.

In the dark days of what amounts to a period of hibernation for humankind in the northern hemisphere, isn’t it wonderful to know that the Cosmos is still bringing us its own version of Son et Lumière? Those unexplained shimmering beams of light bent by electromagnetic forces relatively few of us yet understand, spinnning constantly round our Blue Planet.

You thought Crop Circles were cool: in midwinter, Light is even Cooler.

December 10, 2009 Posted by | ancient rites, astronomy, consciousness, environment, nature, sun, weather | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments