Geomagnetism, Space Weather and the ESWW Conference / / by Guanren Wang

Guanren Wang is a Geomagnetic Scientist at the British Geological Survey. Space weather forecasting forms part of Guanren’s work within the geomagnetism team. He, alongside teammates, recently travelled to Belgium to attend the 2019 European Space Weather Week to better understand the current advancement in space weather forecasting capabilities worldwide...

Last November, members of the British Geological Survey’s geomagnetism team attended the 16th European Space Weather Week (ESWW) in Liège, Belgium. This is an annual science conference aimed at improving our understanding of solar activity, and its impact on the Earth environment, as well as the current mitigation strategies to minimise space weather disruptions in the event of a large, Earth-directed solar storm.

ESWW brings together international scientists working in the solar physics and space weather forecasting community, along with specialists from power grid operations, aviation and navigation sectors, who share the common vision of improving our ability to deal with space weather hazards. This year, the ESWW conference centre sat on the embankment of the river Meuse flowing through the city of Liège and under its many bridges.

View of the embankment across the river from inside the conference centre

I began my first day at ESWW by attending a ‘User Guide to Space Weather Services’ tutorial. This was an energetic event where seven space weather service providers pitched their product to entice the audience into attending their service demo. After the demo, I attentively listened to their presentations in order to prepare myself for the keyword detector quiz, where members of the audience had to match keywords linked to the presented services.

After the presentations, I attended pre-selected talks from the programme overview. Each 10-minute-long talk was categorised under one of the themed sessions, so delegates could choose the session associated with their area of interest. There were several high profile talks given by BGS at the conference. Dr Ciaran Beggan of BGS presented two talks at ESWW 2019, one on each day. The first was ‘Building a Raspberry Pi School Magnetometer Network in the UK’ on day one, where he brought attention to the development of low-cost magnetometers run from Raspberry Pi computers in UK schools.

Guanren and Dr Ciaran Beggan

At each morning coffee break, a presenter from a nominated institution would carry out a live space weather forecast. This year, my colleague Sarah Reay represented BGS in delivering a forecast of geomagnetic activity three days ahead of time. The forecast specifically targeted users interested in geomagnetically induced currents, such as power companies. Coffee breaks also offered terrific opportunities for delegates to make professional connections, to discuss the prospect of collaboration and to provide feedback about one another’s research. In the late afternoon, I witnessed the ESWW Medal Ceremony, in which three prolific scientists - each at different stages in their careers - received awards in recognition for their contribution to the advancement of Space Weather research. My first day of ESWW wrapped up at the nearby ‘Aquarium-Muséum’ where the organisers planned a dinner buffet, which provided me with further opportunities to speak to other delegates about their work.

On day 2, Dr Alan Thomson from BGS led a Topic Discussion Meeting on ‘How can we improve the modelling processes driving Geomagnetic Induced Currents and electric field impact on ground-based systems?’ From which we have received tremendous interest regarding developing new models and services for the power industry. Topic Discussion Meetings began from mid-afternoon onwards each day in separate seminar rooms. The purpose of which is to exchange ideas and share perspectives from those carrying out their research around a specific topic of interest. Ciaran also presented his second talk on 'Validating GIC models with line current measurements using the Differential Magnetometer Method', where he discussed the latest results from the ongoing Space Weather Impact on Ground-based Systems (SWIGS) project. 

Views from the bottom and top of the Montagne de Bueren steps

Poster sessions commenced from the late afternoon of day 2 alongside coffee breaks where I learnt more about changes in the sizes of coronal holes during their lifespan. Coronal holes are discrete dark patches observed on the Sun’s corona that have open magnetic field lines, allowing high-speed solar wind streams carrying highly energetic particles to flow through interplanetary space. Any Earth-directed high-speed solar wind stream would cause geomagnetic disturbances, and in extreme events, could lead to degradation of critical ground-based infrastructure such as power-grids, and disrupt radio and satellite communication systems on a regional scale.

Later that evening, Ciaran, Sarah and I visited the Centre Spatial de Liège. Professor Pierre Rochus, Director of the Centre, presented us with a highlight reel of the research centre’s role in developing cutting-edge instruments customised for all types of space missions and optical technologies. After Pierre’s presentation, we took a guided tour of the centre. An enthusiastic scientist explained the awesome in-house facilities placed in specialised laboratories. One aspect I found particularly riveting is seeing the set-ups for a sterilised environment to test out space instrumentations.

Guanren with Professor Pierre Rochus, Scientific Director of Centre Spatial de Liège

After a light lunch, Ciaran and I spent the early part of our Wednesday afternoon traversing the city centre before climbing all 374 steps of the legendary Montagne de Bueren staircase. Once at the top of the hill, we rejuvenated our brains with fresh air as we cast our gaze across the landscape around Liège, then munched waffles before heading back to attend more Topic Discussion Meetings, followed by a Science & Beer fair at the conference centre. 

My mornings for the rest of the week were occupied with talks including the ‘Machine Learning and statistical inference techniques applied to Space Weather‘ and ‘Novel Approaches for Space Weather Forecasting’ sessions, both of which reflect the space weather community’s desire to embrace innovative approaches initially developed in other physics disciplines.

Attending the 16th ESWW event was an inspiring and refreshing experience for me as an early career scientist. I have absorbed an abundance of knowledge in the areas of Solar Physics and Space Weather forecasting. This superbly organised conference also served as a terrific platform to network with other members of this scientific community and to discuss one another's topics of research. 

Guanren 'testing' his alcohol tolerance during the Science & Beer event