Laura Roberts-Artal

Laura Roberts Artal is the Communications Officer at the European Geosciences Union. She is responsible for the management of the Union's social media presence and the EGU blogs, where she writes regularly for the EGU's official blog, GeoLog. She is also the point of contact for early career scientists (ECS) at the EGU Office. Laura has a PhD in palaeomagnetism from the University of Liverpool. Laura tweets at @LauRob85.

When Astronomy Gets Closer to Home: Why space weather outreach is important and how to give it impact

When the public think about natural hazards, space weather is not the first thing to come to mind. Yet, though uncommon, extreme space weather events can have an economic impact similar to that of large floods or earthquakes. Although there have been efforts across various sectors of society to communicate this topic, many people are still quite confused about it, having only a limited understanding of the relevance of space weather in their daily lives. As such, it is crucial to properly communicate this topic to a variety of audiences. This article explores why we should communicate space weather research, how it can be framed for different audiences and how researchers, science communicators, policy makers and the public can raise awareness of the topic.


As you sit reading this article, the Sun is brimming with activity. The yellow disc in the sky may appear unimpressive but when looking in the extreme ultraviolet region of the spectrum, the Sun’s hot active regions glow bright (Figure 1). These are areas with an especially strong magnetic field — manifested in the form of dark patches or sunspots on the solar surface — that can be the source of explosive bursts of energy and solar material. Even though the Sun is some 150 million kilometres away, these solar storms can alter the near-Earth space environment, changing our space weather.

Of the solar storms that can hit the Earth, the most damaging are coronal mass ejections. These high-speed bursts of solar material — if powerful enough and directed towards our planet with the proper orientation of their magnetic field — can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a geomagnetic storm. This can impact power grids and pipelines, and affect communications and transportation systems. Coronal mass ejections and other solar storms such as solar flares — outbursts of radiation and high-energy particles — can also affect spacecraft and satellites and even be a radiation hazard for astronauts and air crews flying at high latitudes and altitudes.

Figure 1. The Sun in the extreme ultraviolet, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on 04 December 2014. This wavelength highlights the outer atmosphere of the Sun (corona) and active solar regions, which appear bright in the image. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections would also be highlighted in this channel.

Figure 1. The Sun in the extreme ultraviolet, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on 04 December 2014. This wavelength highlights the outer atmosphere of the Sun (corona) and active solar regions, which appear bright in the image. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections would also be highlighted in this channel. (Credit: Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams)

The importance of communicating space weather research

Space weather may be a concept unfamiliar to many, but, as with any natural hazard, it is important that the public know about it and understand the potential dangers. At its most extreme space weather can cause large-scale power blackouts and, thus, affect global supply chains including food and water supplies, damaging livelihoods and the economy in the process. Severe space weather occurs about once a century on average (Riley, 2012), but milder events can disrupt human activity once or twice per decade (POST Note, 2010). At a time when we are over-reliant on technology and our power grids are more connected than ever, meaning they are more vulnerable to space weather, telling people about this natural hazard becomes all the more crucial.
Space weather is an area of astronomy much closer to home than most, which can in itself act as a hook for audiences, whether children or policy makers. After all, most people have either seen or heard about the most visible and stunning space weather-related phenomenon, the aurora, which forms when particles from the Sun energise the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere making it glow (Figures 2 and 3).

Communicating space weather is an opportunity to get others interested in space and science, and to inspire younger people to pursue a career in these areas. In more general terms researchers of space weather, as is the case with many areas of astronomy, have much to gain from communicating their research. Communicating space weather as a researcher can help to improve a CV, hone presentation and writing skills and bring a new perspective to research. Expanding the audience for this research beyond the astronomy community can further lead to interdisciplinary collaborations and an increase in citations for relevant research papers.

In addition, communicating space weather research with the public is a way of justifying the taxpayers’ money that funds most solar–terrestrial research. Engaging the public with this often-forgotten subject area could increase public support for it and inform policy, ensuring that legislation relating to space weather is based on sound science.

Green aurora over Abisko in Sweden.

Figure 2. Green aurora over Abisko in Sweden. (Credit: Carme Bosch, distributed via

Defining your audience

As with more general astronomy or science outreach, before communicating space weather it is important to define an audience. Will this be a talk at a school or an article for a popular astronomy magazine? Is the aim to brief engineers who work on infrastructure protection or to give evidence to a parliamentary committee? The message needs to be targeted to the public that the communicator is reaching out to.

Communicating with young people or a general audience

When communicating with school children, focussing on the Sun and the fascinating aspects of solar–terrestrial science is a way to get the audience excited rather than scared about space weather. For both younger crowds and the wider public, the use of images, videos, animations and other visuals helps to captivate the audience’s attention and can go a long way towards explaining tricky topics.

A further aid to make the public relate better to space weather is to show them what the Sun looks like at that moment and what the current space weather conditions are. For this, NASA and ESA’s Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) page and the US Space Weather Prediction Center website are great resources.

To help familiarise the audience with complex concepts, it is often useful to use everyday analogies and examples — like using a peppercorn and a football to give an idea of the relative sizes of the Earth and Sun. In addition, as with other topics, it is important for the communicator to speak or write clearly and avoid technical terms when reaching out to a general audience.

Bright aurora over Alaska

Figure 3. Bright aurora over Alaska. (Credit: Taro Nakai, distributed via

Communicating with technical audiences and policy makers

The language can be more technical when communicating with engineers or policy makers, but should still be free of discipline-specific jargon. Engineers are likely interested in finding out about the properties of solar storms and how spacecraft can be made more resilient, or how the effects of geomagnetic storms could be mitigated to avoid excessive damage to technological infrastructure. Policy makers want the facts given in a balanced, clear and objective way, and are interested in space weather aspects with policy relevance, such as monitoring, resilience and funding.
Real-world examples and avoiding scaremongering

A crucial aspect is to strike a balance between informing about the dangers of space weather and avoiding scaremongering. The communicator should give concrete examples about past events that have affected human activity. Typical examples include the famous 1859 Carrington event, which affected telegraph systems and caused aurorae as far south as Cuba (Bell, 2008); the Quebec 1989 geomagnetic storm that caused a power blackout affecting several million people and temporarily paralysed the Montreal metro and international airport (POST Note, 2010); or the Halloween storms of 2003 over northern Europe that damaged satellites, caused a blackout in Sweden, and forced air companies to reroute trans-polar flights (POST Note, 2010).
These events illustrate that space weather is something that the public and policy makers need to be aware of because it can affect their daily lives. But it’s also important to explain that geomagnetic storms, particularly severe ones that could cause trillions of euros in damage, are not very common (Workshop report, 2008). It is important to raise awareness of space weather and educate the public on the best ways to prepare for and mitigate space weather without getting people needlessly worried about its impact. Always finish on a positive note when doing space weather outreach.

Getting involved as a science communicator, scientist or member of the public

For those convinced about the importance of engaging the public with space weather, and confident about delivering a targeted and informative message, there are many opportunities to get involved in space weather outreach. If you are an astronomy communicator, and thus likely to already be writing popular science articles or giving presentations about various aspects of astronomy, why not choose space weather as your next topic? As a researcher, there are science cafes available to bring space weather to the public, you could blog about your work, give talks at local schools, or — if you are preparing a new and exciting paper on the topic — you can reach out to journalists through the press office at your institution.

Experienced scientists have an additional responsibility to communicate with policy makers. They can reach this audience by providing input to a policy briefing, such as those written by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in the UK, or by contributing to a governmental report through their research council. Scientists can also apply to serve as science advisers to their local politician or to a governmental body, or join science policy groups in their country to raise the importance of space weather in the political agenda.

Finally, if you are a member of the public who knows little about space weather, but is interested in finding out more, you can help researchers and communicators in this area by taking part in public consultations, such as the Space Weather Public Dialogue underway (at the time of writing) in the UK, which is open to people from all countries. The aim of this project is to help UK research councils and entities find out more about how to best communicate space weather and its impacts and to evaluate the public’s level of preparedness.

If you want to communicate space weather, or help others do it more effectively, there are plenty of opportunities out there to get involved. Be enthusiastic and pro-active, and encourage others to raise public awareness about what happens on the Sun and in our local space environment.

# # #

This article is based on a presentation given at a session of the European Geosciences Union 2014 General Assembly in Vienna on 2 May 2014. The session, titled ‘Raising and Maintaining Awareness of our Local Space Weather: Education and public outreach’, was convened by Athanasios Papaioannou and Jean Lilensten. I am grateful to Athanasios for inviting me to speak at the European Geosciences Union conference, for encouraging me to write this article, and for the useful comments that improved the initial draft of this text.

Bell, T. E & Phillips, T. 2008, A Super Solar Flare:
POST Note 361, 2010, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology:
Riley, P. 2012, Space Weather, 10, 2:
Workshop report, 2008, Severe space weather events—understanding societal and economic impacts (The National Academies Press: New York):–understanding-societal-and-economic-impacts

by Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

CAP_coverThis article was originally published on the December 2014 issue of the Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) Journal. Head over to the CAP website to download it in PDF format, or read the full issue.

GeoTalk: Nick Dunstone, an outstanding young scientist

 Nick Dunstone, the winner of a 2014 EGU Division Outstanding Young Scientists Award, who studies the Earth’s climate and atmosphere, including how they are impacted by natural variation and anthropogenic emissions talks to Bárbara Ferreira, the EGU Media and Communications Manager, in this edition of GeoTalk. This interview was first published in our quarterly newsletter, GeoQ.

NickFirst, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment?

My name is Dr Nick Dunstone and I am a climate scientist working at the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK. Here I work within the Monthly to Decadal Climate Prediction group which focuses on developing regional climate prediction capability for all areas of the globe. The monthly to decadal timescale (often referred to as ‘near-term’ prediction) is an emerging and challenging field of climate prediction which attempts to span the void between shorter term weather forecasts (days to weeks) and longer term climate projections (many decades to centuries) using numerical climate models. So, similar to a weather forecast, near-term climate predictions are initialised close to the observed state of the climate and yet, similar to a climate projection; they also include the projected changes in external forcings such as greenhouse gases, anthropogenic aerosols and the solar cycle. Much of my research over the last few years has concerned the amount of predictability in the climate system arising from slowly varying internal processes (for example, slowly varying ocean dynamics) versus how much is driven by external forcings (e.g. anthropogenic emissions).

Earlier this year, you received a Division Outstanding Young Scientists Award for your work on the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system and its predictability. Could you tell us a bit more about the research you have developed in this area?

Some of my work has considered the role of internal ocean dynamics in driving predictability in the atmosphere. Often we think of the tropical regions as being the engine of the climate system, driving some of the variability in the mid-latitude atmosphere. However, this is not always the case and especially on longer timescales (multi-annual to decadal), the mid-latitudes can drive tropical variability. My colleagues and I illustrated this using a set of idealised climate model experiments that tested the impact of initialising the state of different parts of the world’s oceans. The results showed that it was key to initialise the ocean’s sub-surface temperature and salinity (and so density) in the high latitude North Atlantic to have skill in predicting the multi-annual frequency of model tropical Atlantic hurricanes. This is intimately linked to correctly initialising the model’s Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, and to the question of what sub-surface ocean observations would be needed to do this. I have also worked on how external forcings, such as anthropogenic emissions from industrial pollution, may impact regional climate variability.

A lot of the work you have developed focuses on the anthropogenic impact on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate. What does your research tell us about the extent of the impact of human activities on the Earth’s natural systems?

In the last couple of years we have examined the possible impact of anthropogenic aerosol emissions on multi-decadal changes in climate variability. We found that when the latest generation of climate models include the historical inventory of anthropogenic aerosol emissions, they are capable of better reproducing the phases of observed multi-decadal variability in North Atlantic temperatures. In our Met Office Hadley Centre climate model, we find that this is principally due to the inclusion of aerosol-cloud interactions. When aerosols are present in clouds they can modify the cloud droplet size (known as the 1st aerosol indirect effect), increasing the reflectivity of the clouds and hence decreasing the amount of solar radiation reaching the ocean surface. Variations in aerosol emissions from North America and Europe due to socioeconomic changes (e.g. rapid post-war industrialisation in the 1950s and 1960s and then the introduction of clean-air legislation in the 1970s and 1980s) then drive fluctuations in North Atlantic temperatures in our climate model. Furthermore, we also showed that the frequency of model North Atlantic hurricanes is also driven primarily by anthropogenic aerosol changes and that it is in phase with the observed changes in Atlantic hurricane frequency. Further work needs to be done to understand if this aerosol mechanism is truly operating in the real world. If so, then our work suggests a significant role for humans in unwittingly modulating regional climate variability (especially in the North Atlantic) throughout the 20th century. This also has profound implications for the next few decades, as North America and Europe continue to clean-up their industrial aerosol emissions, whilst the impact of short-term increases in aerosol emissions from developing economies (e.g. China and India) also needs to be studied. Of course, at the same time, the signal of greenhouse gas warming is likely to become more dominant with associated climate impacts.

What is your view on having the Anthropocene accepted as a formal geological epoch? Do you think there are scientific grounds to define the Anthropocene in such a way, or at least in what your research area is concerned?

This is an interesting question but not one that I’ve thought very much about! From a climate scientist perspective, I think it is fairly obvious that we have entered a time when the human fingerprint extends to all (or at least very nearly all) environments on Earth. We see the fingerprint in the concentration of greenhouse gases and water vapour in the atmosphere, land and sea-surface temperatures, deep-ocean warming, ocean sea-level rise, ocean acidification, etc… If physical climate changes alone were the main criterion, then surely there would be no doubt that we have entered a new epoch. Beyond this though, the wider Earth biological system is also being impacted by human activity. For example, previous epochs have also been defined based upon mass species extinction, so there may also be a case here for viewing the Anthropocene as a time when the actions of humanity have led to species extinction. Of course there are then questions about how to define the beginning of this new epoch. Many suggest a geophysical marker such as the 1940s and 1950s when radionuclides from nuclear detonations first became present. Or would it be when the atmospheric CO2 concentration started to rise above pre-industrial levels in the early nineteenth century? Or would it be earlier still, when we started significantly altering the land-surface via large-scale deforestation? Then when would the Anthropocene end? Could we envisage a time in the future when we effectively remove our influence on the climate system, e.g. returning the atmospheric constituents to pre-industrial ratios? Or, rather more grimly, would the Anthropocene only truly be over when our species itself becomes extinct? Whilst these are very interesting ‘dinner-table’ type discussions, from a working climate scientist viewpoint the definition seems largely academic and we’d probably be better off investing our time into researching how we are changing the planet and predicting the associated climate impacts!

On a different topic, according to your page on the Met Office website, you started your career in science as an astrophysicist. Could you tell us a bit about how you made the transition from astrophysics to climate science, highlighting any difficulties you may have had with making such a career change and how you overcame them? What advice would you have for young scientists looking to make a similar move?

To a large extent I think ‘science is science’! Many of the skills are very transferable, especially between physical, computationally based, subjects, where numerical modelling skills are essential. I’ve now met a surprising number of climate scientists who are ex-astronomers, or from some other branch of physics. I think what you need most of all is the drive for learning new things, and making new discoveries, about the physical world in which we live. I found that this is very transferable, applying equally to astrophysics and climate science. I think you settle into a subject slowly and even though I’ve been working in climate science for over 6 years now, I still have lots to learn about our existing understanding of climate system, and that’s exciting. The important thing to realise however, is that you can still make important and useful contributions to a new field quite quickly, especially one as broad as climate science, given the right guidance or supervision.

Finally, could you tell us a bit about your future research plans?

We need to progress both our understanding of natural (internal) variability in climate models and improve the fidelity of important climate teleconnections (processes linking variability in one part of the climate system with climate impacts in a remote region). At the same time we need to progress our understanding of the relative roles of external vs internal forcing in driving variability and extremes in the climate system. On the shorter (seasonal) timescales I am interested in what drives the year-to-year variability in the winter North Atlantic Oscillation, which our latest Met Office seasonal climate prediction systems can now predict with surprisingly good skill. Much of this work I hope to develop during my new post as manager of the Global Climate Dynamics group in the Met Office Hadley centre that I will start in December.


Interview conducted by Bárbara Ferreira

EGU Media and Communications Manager and GeoQ Chief Editor


Imaggeo on Mondays: A single beam in the dancing night lights

Laser and auroras. (Credit: Matias Takala distributed via

Laser and auroras. (Credit: Matias Takala distributed via

Research takes Earth scientists to the four corners of globe. So, if you happen to have a keen interest in photography and find yourself doing research at high latitudes, chances are you’ll get lucky and photograph the dancing night lights: aurora (or northern lights), arguably one of the planet’s most breath taking natural phenomenon. That is exactly the position Matias Takala, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), was in when he was able to take this incredible photograph of the swirling aurora and a single beam of green penetrating the Finnish night sky.

The green beam is emitted by Lidar (the Mobile Aerosol Raman Lidar, MARL, to be more precise). This lidar system is designed to measure tropospheric and stratospheric aerosol profiles (backscatter, size distribution, mass), tropospheric water vapour and clouds, with the ability to distinguish between particulates such as dust, ash, and smoke from biomass burning. The system is based at the Arctic Research Centre (ARC) at Sodankylä. Because environmental change is most pronounced in the Polar Regions, the location is ideal to study the effects of a warming climate as a result of environmental changes brought about by the activities of humans.

The high latitude position of the research station means it is also ideally located to contribute to the continuous monitoring of ionospheric activity. Think of the ionosphere as a ring, 85 km to 600 km above the Earth’s surface, of electrons, electrically charged atoms and molecules that surround the Planet. It is here that aurora are generated as incoming charged particles from solar wind collide with the electrons and atoms of gas in the ionosphere. A network of FMI auroral cameras and magnetometers continually survey the sky to provide space weather services, including alerts for when the best auroral displays are likely.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Townhall and Splinter Meetings at EGU 2015

In addition to the wealth of scientific sessions at the General Assembly (12–17 April 2015), there is also the option to attend other meetings during EGU 2015. These include Townhall and Splinter Meetings, which are organised by conference participants. 

Townhall Meetings

Townhall Meetings are meetings open for all participants in the conference. During these meetings new initiatives or decisions are announced to a larger audience following an open discussion on the matter.

Anyone may organise a Townhall Meeting, subject to approval by the Programme Committee chair. Townhall Meetings will be scheduled from Monday to Friday from 19:00 to 20:00 in the conference centre’s lecture rooms. Applications should be sent to the Programme Committee chair using the Townhall Meeting Request Form. Upon acceptance, the respective meeting will appear in the Townhall Meetings Programme as a regular session.

Further information on Townhall Meetings is available on the EGU 2015 website.

Opening night at EGU 2014. (Credit: EGU/Tim Middleton)

Opening night at EGU 2014. (Credit: EGU/Tim Middleton)

Splinter Meetings

Splinter Meetings can also be organised by participants during the course of the conference and they can be public or by invitation only. To request a Splinter meeting, please complete the online Splinter Meeting Request Form. Splinter Meeting rooms are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. Please see the Splinter Meeting Overview to determine room availability before submitting your request.

Note, that these splinter meeting rooms are not available for booking as an extension of a session or a Poster Summary Discussion (PSD). Such requests will automatically be withdrawn. Instead, conveners can request a PSD room in their Session Organising Tool SOII from 17 – 20 January 2015.

Additional information on Splinter Meetings is available on the EGU 2015 website.