CFI invests in space weather research to guard industry, information economy

Space weather researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) have been awarded $462,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to support their research into how the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field interacts with the harsh environment of space.

"Space weather affects us all—from the power grids that keep our lights on to the satellites that support our information economy," said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president research. "This major investment from CFI will help create new knowledge to cope with these challenges, while creating unique opportunities for students to be trained in making space-science discoveries."

The CFI investment, through its Major Science Initiatives program, will support the Canadian component of SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network), ensuring it works at full capacity, drives development of new technology and increases access to data.

SuperDARN is a global collaboration of more than 30 scientific radar installations run through research institutions in 10 countries around the world. The U of S Institute for Space and Atmospheric Studies (ISAS) leads Canada's portion of SuperDARN, operating three radars in the Arctic, one in British Columbia and one just east of Saskatoon.

Kathryn McWilliams, who leads SuperDARN Canada with U of S Canada Research Chair Jean-Pierre St. Maurice, explained that the most visible and striking manifestation of space weather is the aurora, the shimmering sheets of green and pink that light the northern and southern skies. SuperDARN produces "voltage maps," taken every minute on a global scale, that track the motion of charged particles in the upper atmosphere as they are pushed around by the forces imposed from space by the solar wind.

"These maps are similar to the weather maps that we see on the evening news," said Kathryn McWilliams associate professor of physics and engineering physics. "Down here on Earth, weather is driven by high and low pressure systems, while high and low voltage systems in the ionosphere are driven by the solar wind and the interplanetary magnetic field in space."

Stormy space weather can disrupt international banking, internet, television and other communications, or global air, land and marine navigation systems, all of which rely on satellites in space. Effects reach right to the ground, where they can cause huge spikes in current in power grids, one of which caused the entire province of Quebec to go dark in 1989. Solar storms can also throw off GPS accuracy by several metres by disrupting the signals from the satellites on which the system depends. As more industries, from farming to mining, begin to incorporate GPS automated systems, such inaccuracies could cause dangerous and costly collisions or other accidents.

McWilliams said Canada is uniquely suited for space weather research, as it has the largest land mass located under the northern "auroral oval," the region around the North Pole where the aurora occurs most often. This positions the country well to use SuperDARN data to one day produce "space weather" forecasts that would allow people on the ground to prepare.

"We're still in the early stages, but our goal and the goal of our colleagues around the world is that SuperDARN's research data will one day be used much as meteorological data is used on Earth," McWilliams said. "We hope SuperDARN will be used by industries and governments to help mitigate negative effects on Earth from space weather, including damage to a satellite or technology on the ground."

CFI's Major Science Initiatives Fund supports ongoing operations and maintenance needs of national research facilities that enable researchers to undertake world-class research and technology development that lead to social, economic and environmental benefits to Canada.

"When the country's researchers have access to state-of-the-art tools and facilities, they can ask bold questions, find remarkable answers and apply them in new and, often, unexpected ways," said CFI President and CEO Gilles Patry. "Their discoveries and innovations further Canada's reputation as a nation known for its research excellence."


For more information, contact:


Jennifer Thoma

Media Relations

University of Saskatchewan



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