This week a headline made the rounds clamoring that Auroras would be visible at mid-latitudes, which is not exactly uncommon during this solar cycle. However, this latest rash of aurora news had a bizarre feature: a five-day lead time on the supposed solar storm. Outlets as venerable as NPR published articles on Sunday July 9th, telling folks as far south as Annapolis to look to the sky on July 13th! The obvious question I took from this is: who is out there confidently making forecasts this far in advance?
As it turns out, no one was forecasting this with any degree of confidence. However, friends began messaging me with similar articles, all with virtually the same language, with the same predictions, all of it wrong. Clickbaity headlines appeared on my news feeds, and after a quick trip to the Space Weather Prediction Center, I confirmed that no significant space weather was in the forecast, with Kp values not even breaking 4. So where were these editors getting this bogus information? Looking into the articles, all of them reference the Fairbanks Geophysical Institute as the source, and indeed Fairbanks is a respectable institution. However, Fairbanks's forecast is essentially a persistence forecast; a guess based on the assumption that sunspots and coronal holes will persist through a whole solar rotation and have effects similar to the prior rotation. This is somewhat true, but it is not regarded as a valid forecast. For that we have The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) which publishes forecasts three days in advance, but it appears none of the authors checked with the experts before stirring up a commotion.
Reading further into the original articles, it became apparent why these writers didn't know how to interpret this information: understanding of space weather seems to be very poor among the journalists who cover it. The columns all contained very similar language ranging from generalized regurgitated information on auroras, to statements about space weather that were flat out wrong:
During the storm, a coronal hole (the spots that appear black on the sun) prompts high winds, which in turn, trigger coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. A CME projects plasma and pieces of the sun's magnetic field into the atmosphere.
Clearly the editor of this article did not catch the circular logic of coronal holes creating solar wind, which then creates CMEs, which then creates...solar wind. It took a matter of days for any reporter to notice this massive oversight, and some news outlets began backpedaling on the hype. What's noticeable here is that in many of these retraction articles, the narrative is that forecasters were the source of confusion, not that journalists misunderstood the science and jumped to publish clickbait.
To be fair, as this blog often likes to say, Space Weather Is Hard. Journalists have a tough and important job, and given the fact that so much information on space weather is obfuscated and poorly communicated, it's no wonder that this confusion spiral tightened so fast. The relative accuracy of earth weather prediction also has folks conditioned to assume the word "forecast" means a prediction that is somewhat accurate even seven days in advance, so it's only natural to think about space weather this way. For this reason, it makes sense what a writer would see a five-day prediction and not think twice about it. What the general public doesn't know is that SPWC is looking at space through a dime store magnifying glass, whereas weather.gov is pointing a metaphorical high powered telescope at every square kilometer of air on earth.
What this comes down to is a messaging problem, both from the government source of the information at NOAA, and from the media charged with giving meaning to that info. SWPC, with its limited funding and challenging work, can't deliver much engaging education or even human-readable forecasts. Likewise, general understanding of space weather is so poor that absurd news is easily spread and seldom fact checked. Because of this lack of foundational knowledge, we have people anxiously prepping for the next Carrington Event every time a solar storm is mentioned, and important issues like cosmic radiation exposure among air crew are rarely discussed. It's also why a lot of folks dismiss the idea of aurora chasing in New England as a possibility, and it ultimately devalues the night sky. When people are armed with inaccurate information, it's sure to make the pursuit a dead end.
I'll do my soapbox bit here: This is why it's important for the chasing community to do its own messaging. When people understand the night sky, the art and science and human connection to the environment that results is beyond valuation. Those who are passionate about this weird hobby are in the unique position to be better than the usual outlets at demystifying space weather through photography, writing, teaching, and advocacy. The more this is done, the more people we'll have enjoying the night sky and the dark places beneath it.