Tom Bogdan: 'The sky at night stops me from sleeping'

The head of the world's only civilian operation to forecast solar storms is a worried man. Steve Connor reports

Tom Bogdan doesn't strike you as the nervous type but there is one thing that does keep him awake at night. His insomnia is caused by a 14-year-old satellite sitting between the Earth and the Sun some 1.5 million km away which he fears may one day suddenly die, so leaving the world without a vital early-warning system against a devastating solar storm.

Dr Bogdan is head of the US Space Weather Prediction Centre, the only civilian operation in the world dedicated to forecasting the size and timing of solar storms on a 24/7 basis. The satellite disturbing his sleep, the Advanced Composition Explorer, was designed with a lifetime of just two years – which is why, 14 years after its launch, Dr Bogdan gets worried.

Last week, the Earth was bombarded by millions of tons of solar particles travelling at a million miles an hour. Fortunately, this solar storm was a relatively minor affair. Dr Bogdan's centre gave it Category One status, the lowest of the five solar-storm categories. But there is always the risk that one day the Earth will be hit by a Category Five storm, which in space weather terms amounts to a cosmic hurricane capable of knocking out GPS satellites, power grids and critical telecommunications.

The Sun is now emerging from the lowest period of inactivity since the space age took off 50 years ago. Last week's event is almost certain to be just the start of a cycle that is expected to peak in 2013. It is during this rising activity that we can expect the Earth to be buffeted by some devastating solar storms.

Britain has now teamed up with the US to create a second solar weather prediction centre which, like its counterpart in Boulder, will operate 24/7 to make forecasts about an "imminent coronal mass ejection" – when the Sun spews out a billion or so tons of energetically charged particles travelling at a million miles an hour that can interact with electronic and magnetic devices, from satellites to electrical transformers.

The UK Met Office and Dr Bogdan's centre are now exchanging computer models and expertise in the hope that each can learn from one another about the vagaries of space weather prediction, which Dr Bogdan freely admits is still in its infancy: "Today, unfortunately, space weather is where meteorology was at the end of the 1950s."

His book-lined office overlooks the Rocky Mountains and is situated within the Boulder laboratories of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for predicting terrestrial hurricanes, among other things. He is a mathematician by training and first got interested in the Sun when he met his academic supervisor, a scientist called Eugene Parker who predicted the existence of the solar wind before it was discovered.

One of Dr Bogdan's undoubted skills is what in America is called "public outreach". In other words, he is a good communicator, which he demonstrates in his verbal description of what actually happens when the Sun starts to get active.

"It usually starts with a solar flare, which is composed of a lot of ultraviolet and shortwave radiation travelling at the speed of light, so it takes eight minutes to get to us from the Sun," Dr Bogdan says.

"Down here at ground level we never see it or experience it but it gets absorbed in the atmosphere overhead by the ozone protective layer. It leads to an overactive ionosphere and that impacts people who operate GPS and any high-frequency radio communications," he says.

"Ten to 30 minutes later, if we are well connected to the flare site of the Sun where the event occurred, energetic particles will start bombarding the atmosphere," he explains.

This is when it gets dangerous for astronauts to be out there in space as these particles can penetrate their protective suits and damage their DNA. They can also cause "bit flips" in electronic devices controlled by computer. "In the past we've had satellites rendered inoperable because of severe radiation storms," Dr Bogdan says. "However, the big impacts we are concerned about are power grids, because those long wires connected to transformers can pick up currents that can cause power outages."

The biggest known solar storm occurred in 1859 and was documented by the British astronomer Richard Carrington, after whom the event is now known. More recently, in 2003, a solar storm caused the loss of an air navigation system across the United States that relied on GPS satellites.

Dr Bogdan says that the recent agreement between President Obama and the Prime Minister to build a second space weather predicton centre is predicated on the idea that society is now far more vulnerable than it was during previous peaks in solar activity.

"Advanced technology has crept into just about everything we do. GPS has entered so many parts of our lives," he says. But this dependence creates vulnerability, which is why you need a cool head to be the man who will warn the world of a Category 5 storm to rival the infamous Carrington Event of 1859.

"We know the Sun is capable of an 1859 event. It would be shortsighted to say that that's the worst the Sun could ever do. It can probably do worse than 1859," he says.

Route to the stars

* Born in 1957 in Buffalo, NY – the same year as the largest ever recorded sunspot.



* His father was an engineer on the Manhattan Project, while his mother was a writer and political advocate for local Native Americans.



* Graduated from the State University of New York in 1979 with highest honours and went on to earn a Masters and PhD in Physics from the University of Chicago.



* In 1993 he married Barb Cardell, a sexual health campaigner.



* For nearly 20 years he was a leading scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research and was appointed director of the Space Weather Prediction Centre in 2006.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn