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SuperDARN Canada Leading the Charge in Study of Global Space Weather Patterns

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SuperDARN Canada

At over 200 metres wide, a SuperDARN radar's main antenna array is an impressive instrument. New SuperDARN radars no longer wield the Sabre antennas. Image courtesy of SuperDARN Canada. 

Spotlight On:

Kathryn McWilliams
University of Saskatchewan
Associate Professor, Physics and Engineering Physics; and Lead, SuperDARN Canada

With much of our lives driven by digital devices, real-time communications, and a reliance on uninterrupted signals, it can be more than just a little inconvenient when these services are disrupted. In some cases, essential services may be impacted where lives could be put at stake. A common cause of disturbance is space weather, which refers to a collection of physical processes that occur when electrically charged particles emitted from the Sun interact with the Earth's outer atmosphere.

The resulting electromagnetic interactions cause concentrations of energetic particles and electric currents to flow through the ‘near-Earth’ space system. During space weather disturbances the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, are often seen across Canada. Extreme space weather events can cause damage to electrical power grids, degradation of satellite navigation (e.g., GPS) accuracy, loss of radio communications, and damage to telecommunications satellites that could jeopardize billions of dollars of business every day.

“Nearly all international banking, internet, television and communications are done by satellite,” says Kathryn McWilliams, an Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering Physics at the University of Saskatchewan, and leader of the Canadian contingent of the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN). “The space environment is extremely dangerous for the delicate electronic systems on every satellite, particularly during “magnetic storms” when astronauts are required to take shelter in the ISS and when transpolar airline flights are diverted to avoid the dangerous radiation from space.”

SuperDARN is a growing international partnership of more than 10 countries that operate 36 high-frequency radars synchronized to make large scale scans over millions of square kilometers every minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. SuperDARN Canada operates five of those radars, located in Saskatoon, SK; Prince George, BC; Inuvik, NWT; Rankin Inlet, NU; and Clyde River, NU.

Since the beginning of the SuperDARN collaboration in 1993, the University of Saskatchewan has been home to the International SuperDARN Data Copy and Distribution Facility. Data transfer was traditionally done by mail, but in 2013 the international SuperDARN leaders adopted the new online data distribution that the Canadian team had developed on Silo, a data storage facility operated by WestGrid and Compute Canada. As a result, Canada has played a major role in the project since its inception, being responsible for distributing all of the data recorded by all SuperDARN radars around the world.

Currently, each of 36 SuperDARN stations contribute about 12 files per day, with sizes ranging from several to 70 MB. From these, SuperDARN produces “voltage maps“ that track the motion of charged particles in the upper atmosphere as they are pushed around by the forces imposed from space by the solar wind.

“SuperDARN is essential to understanding how the solar wind delivers energy and momentum to the Earth and the space around it,” says McWilliams. “Only when the physics behind this space weather interaction is understood can accurate models be developed and can predictions of the hazardous conditions be made, in the same way that scientists can use atmospheric weather conditions to predict the intensity, size and trajectory of hurricanes.”

SuperDARN has always had massive storage requirements. Over the years, the project team has seen an exponential growth of SuperDARN radar data, due in part to an increase in the number of radars being built as well as increasingly complex and higher resolution scan modes.

“From Exabyte tapes, to CDs and DVDs, then to hard drives, we have relied until now on multiple copies sent by mail to the partner universities and research laboratories,” says McWilliams.

Not only was shipping hard drives costly, slow and time-intensive, the long delays for data to be retrieved by ships from some sites in the Antarctic often led to delays (sometimes 6-12 months) in the data being shared with the international research community. Today, the project is much more digital-driven. In 2013 it launched a new data distribution system for use on Silo, and is leveraging the big data transfer capabilities of the CANARIE and provincial high-speed research networks running between its collection, processing and archival sites.

“Online data distribution is the best solution to eliminate such delays, as data files are available as soon as they are sent to the data server and there is redundancy inherent in the network of multiple mirror sites,” says McWilliams. “We are extremely grateful to the WestGrid team at the U of S for their help in developing our online data distribution. Their knowledge and expertise has been essential for the smooth development and implementation of our data mirror.”

The SuperDARN collaboration is still in its early stages of development, but goals have been set for providing accurate space weather forecasting that can be used by industry and governments to better plan for and reduce disruptions from space weather activity.

“Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan wish to continue in a leadership role in this international project, and we hope to be able to continue managing the SuperDARN data distribution through WestGrid beyond 2015,” says McWilliams. “This high profile activity raises the awareness of Compute Canada’s leadership and forward thinking in research computing, and we feel that the online SuperDARN data distribution facility aligns very well with the mandates of Compute Canada to enable research through advanced computing.”