Canada Research Chair in Environmental Sciences
Generated by massive storms on the surface of the sun, streams of highenergy particles constantly bombard our planet. Piercing the Earth’s magnetic field, this solar wind and the resulting electrical currents produce one of the great wonders of the night sky – the Aurora Borealis or northern lights.
But large bursts in the solar wind carry the potential to do real damage. Pummeled by the high-energy particles, Earth-orbiting satellites can lose attitude control, or instruments, or shut down all together. On Earth, electro-magnetic impulses from electrical currents in the ionosphere can create currents on the ground capable of destroying power installations and creating a domino effect of failure across grids. Welds on pipelines are susceptible to corrosion or to sparks that cause explosions when these currents pass through them. Even the Earth’s climate is influenced by space weather.
At the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Jean-Pierre St.-Maurice is intrigued with the activity on the sun, but more interested in how it manifests itself on Earth. As the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Sciences, he has set his sights on a multi-disciplinary effort that will better equip scientists to more accurately predict space weather, and thereby mitigate its effects.
“New technology, like the SOHO satellite, has already completely changed how we look at the sun. For example, we now know that the cycle of activity on the sun’s surface sometimes stops, and we have not a clue as to how this happens. What we do know is that when this happens, the northern hemisphere gets a lot colder. Likewise, the aurora can be very structured or very erratic. To me, I think of these systems as behaving like milk poured into hot coffee after you’ve given it a little stir. You see clouds and swirls forming complex patterns – the aurora, and even the solar cycle show similar kinds of turbulent structures.”
A physicist with a rich background in geophysics, atmospheric and plasma sciences, Dr. St.-Maurice’s work will focus on the ionosphere over the Canadian Arctic. Here, the Earth’s magnetic field offers its weakest resistance and is most susceptible to penetration by the solar wind particles. “Mapping electric fields 100 kilometers or more above the Earth and relating them back to solar activity will give scientists better insight into the connections between our planet and its life-sustaining star,” he says.
“The effect of the solar wind should never be underestimated. The work we do might help people know when to shield their satellites, to shut down power grids in vulnerable places, even to divert flights away from higher latitudes to protect people from radiation. This knowledge is useful and sometimes even critical.”
An important tool for Dr. St.-Maurice and other researchers is a new high frequency radar system called PolarDARN being developed at the Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Once operational, this ground-based system will use intersecting beams to chart electrical currents over the Canadian Artic.
“I’ll also be a catalyst for an environmental science effort here in Saskatoon. We’ll pull together researchers from all disciplines to explore the origins of climate change, its effects, and possible fixes. I have a genuine interest in looking at the broadest possible picture.”