W W hile we know that human activity is affecting Earth’s climate, can the influence of our actions also reach beyond our planet? The answer is yes, according to a new wide-ranging research paper that looks at the history of “human-induced space weather.”
“Space weather is thought by many scientists, lay people, and policy makers as something that is driven only by the Sun and its outputs,” said Dan Baker director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, via email to Seeker. “What we wanted to show is that humans have in the past — and may into the future — cause important effects that can also be rightly considered to be space weather.”
The paper written by Baker and several colleagues, titled “Anthropogenic Space Weather” and published in the journal Space Science Reviews, outlines how human activity has affected the region around our planet — the near-Earth space where satellites and astronauts on the International Space Station reside. Some human activities have created changes in the magnetosphere and the radiation belts that surround Earth. Some effects have been short-term, while others may have created permanent environmental alterations.
Baker said that the goal of this research was to map out “the broader view that will help all of us deal with — and prepare for — space weather in its many forms.”
Scientists have been studying the effects of the sun on Earth’s atmosphere ever since geomagnetic disturbances started causing telegraph outages in the 19th century. But recently declassified data on high-altitude nuclear explosion tests in the 1950s and 60s details the research that was being done at the time in order to understand the effects this human activity was having on the space environment.
The nuclear tests were carried out by the United States and the Soviet Union. From 1958 to 1962 explosives were detonated at heights from 16 to 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The effects were similar to natural effects from the sun, as the explosions created an expanding gas of electrically charged particles that created a geomagnetic disturbance, sometimes distorting Earth’s magnetic field lines and inducing an electric field on the surface. This sometimes caused power and communications outages, while other nuclear tests produced artificial auroras that could be seen around the world.