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Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Ask a Redbird Scholar: Is there weather in space?

Our top faculty experts answer questions from the Illinois State University community in the “Ask a Redbird Scholar” section.

Why don’t we have weather in space?
—Kate Arthur, editorial writer, University Marketing and Communications

Oh, but there is weather in space as discussed in such places as the Spaceweather.com website. Solar radiation and the solar wind are the most important parts of space weather relative to Earth.

Sunshine is the visible portion of solar radiation and is the driving force in our weather, giving us day and night, summer and winter. About 70 percent of solar radiation is absorbed across the Earth, bringing warmth and driving photosynthesis. The other 30 percent is reflected back to space.

Our atmosphere is a collection of gases and particles held here by gravity. Rain, snow, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards are what we think of as the exciting parts of our weather, but these occur only in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Larger commercial planes fly into the stratosphere, which extends above the heights that thunderstorms and hurricanes reach. Perhaps you have had the pleasure of looking down on the tops of thunderstorms. The weather in the stratosphere and in higher levels of the atmosphere is different from what we experience in the lowest level, the troposphere.

The highest levels of our atmosphere are made up of more exotic materials and magnetic fields. The solar wind consists of streams of ionized gases that interact with the magnetic fields of the Earth. In some cases these interactions produce the auroras, better known as the northern lights and southern lights. Bursts in the solar wind may disrupt radio broadcasts and overload electrical systems.

Weathercasters report on solar flares and will predict stronger solar winds that might produce auroras or disrupt communications here.

While we seldom pay attention to weather in space, it exists and has influence on our lives here at the surface.

James Carter, professor emeritus, Department of Geography-Geology

To submit a question for our “Ask a Redbird Scholar” section, email it to Kevin Bersett at kberse@IllinoisState.edu or tweet it to @ISUResearch. Chosen questions and answers appear in each issue of Illinois State’s new research magazine, the Redbird Scholar. To read other “Ask a Redbird Scholar” posts, visit IllinoisState.edu/RedbirdScholar.

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