Space weather effects on the low latitude D-region ionosphere during solar minimum
© Kumar and Kumar; licensee Springer. 2014
Received: 13 March 2014
Accepted: 15 July 2014
Published: 24 July 2014
The effects of the solar flares and the geomagnetic storms (disturbance storm time (Dst) < −50 nT) during December 2006 to 2008, a period during the unprecedented solar minimum of solar cycles 23 and 24, have been examined on sub-ionospheric very low frequency (VLF) signals from NWC (19.8 kHz), NPM (21.4 kHz), VTX (18.2 kHz), and NLK (24.8 kHz) transmitters monitored at Suva (18.2° S, 178.4° E), Fiji. Apart from the higher class solar flares (C to X), a solar flare of class B8.5 also produced enhancements both on the amplitude and phase. The amplitude enhancements in NLK, NPM, and NWC signals as a function of peak solar flare X-ray flux in decibel (dB; relative to 1 μW/m2) shows that the relationship curve is steeper and quite linear between the flare power levels of 0 to 15 dB; below 0 dB, the curve gets less steep and flattens towards −5 dB flare power level, while it also gets less steep above 15 dB and almost flattens above 20 dB. In general, the level of amplitude enhancement for NLK signal is higher than that for NPM and NWC signals for all solar flares. The enhancement in the amplitude and phase of VLF signals by solar flares is due to the increase in the D-region electron density by the solar flare-produced extra ionization. The modeling of VLF perturbations produced by B8.5 and C1.5 classes of solar flares on 29 January 2007 using LWPC (Long Wave Propagation Capability) V2.1 codes show that reflection height (H') was reduced by 0.6 and 1.2 km and the exponential sharpness factor (β) was raised by 0.010 and 0.005 km−1, respectively. Out of seven storms with Dst < −50 nT, only the intense storm of 14 to 16 December 2006 with a minimum Dst of −145 nT has shown a clear reduction in the signal strength of NWC and NPM sub-ionospheric signals due to storm-induced reduction in the D-region electron density.
The solar flares and geomagnetic storms are the phenomena associated with the space weather. The solar flares, particularly with X-ray having wavelengths typically of tenths of a nanometer, penetrate the D-region of the ionosphere and increase the electron density via extra ionization (e.g. Mitra 1974). The increase in the D-region electron density can produce significant perturbations in the received phase and amplitude of VLF signals propagating in the Earth-ionosphere waveguide (EIWG). The normal unperturbed daytime D-region from which VLF signals are usually reflected is maintained mainly by direct Lyman-α radiation (121.6 nm) from the sun that partially ionizes the minor neutral constituent nitric oxide (at a height around 70 km). Under normal conditions, the solar X-ray flux is too small to be a significant source for ionizing the D-region; however, when a solar flare occurs, the X-ray flux from the sun increases dramatically. The X-ray flux with wavelengths appreciably below 1 nm penetrates down to the D-region and markedly increases the ionization rate of the neutral constituents particularly nitrogen and oxygen hence increases the D-region electron density.
The X-ray emissions from solar flares do not penetrate down to the Earth’s surface so the ground-based detectors could not determine their intensities. Solar flare data are nowadays widely used by researchers to study the changes in the amplitude and phase of VLF transmissions in relation to the increase in solar X-ray flux. McRae and Thomson (2004) using solar flare-induced perturbations in the received VLF phases and amplitudes of Omega, Japan, NPM, Hawaii, and NLK, USA, signals at Dunedin, New Zealand, have studied the changes in ionospheric parameters, H' and β as a function of solar X-ray flux. H' is a measure of the reflection height in km and β is a measure of the sharpness or rate of change of electron density with height at the lower edge of the D-region. Using the Long Wave Propagation Capability (LWPC) V2.1 and ModeFinder computer codes, McRae and Thomson (2004) found that the increase in the ionization due to the flares lowers the H' almost in proportion to the logarithm of the X-ray flux intensity from a typical mid-day unperturbed value of about 71 km down to about 58 km for a solar flare of X5 class and increases β from 0.39 km−1 up to a saturation level of about 0.52 km−1. Thomson et al. (2004, 2005), for solar flares of X class found that the phase perturbations on NLK, NDK (USA), NPM and Omega (Australia) signals received at Dunedin show greater proportionality (correlation) with the X-ray flux over the amplitude. The GOES detectors saturate for solar flares above X17 classes. By extrapolating the phase profiles during the strong solar flares, Thomson et al. (2005) estimated the peak value of the X-ray flux that corresponded to solar flare of X45 class. Grubor et al. (2005) from measurement of GQD, Anthon (54° 53′ N, 17° W, 22.1 kHz) transmitter signal at Belgrade (44° 51′ N, 20° 23′ E) for the solar flare events that occurred during 2004 and 2005, a low solar activity period, found that flares with classes C to X can perturb the amplitude of VLF signals propagating in the EIWG. Recently, Raulin et al. (2013) examined the effects of Lyman-α excess during solar flares on the D-region ionosphere using the VLF phase measurements. They found that while the phase changes using the VLF technique may be a good indicator of quiescent Lyman-α variation along the solar cycle, they cannot be used to scale explosive Lyman-α emission during flares.
The second phenomenon associated with space weather effects is geomagnetic storms, which is a temporary disturbance in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by a solar wind shock wave and/or cloud of magnetic field which interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. It is also well known that like solar flares, magnetic storms are accompanied by ionospheric disturbances which can occur up to the D and E regions (e.g., Antonova et al.1996). Communication and navigation systems such as VLF, LF, and GPS can be significantly affected by ionospheric perturbations associated with the auroral electrojet and high-energy particle precipitation during high geomagnetic activity and can extend to the mid-latitudes (Inan et al.1985). However, much of the focus of the impact of geomagnetic storms on the ionosphere has been at high latitudes (e.g., Kikuchi and Evans 1983). Using the phase data of NWC signal received at Uji, Japan, a low-mid latitude path, Araki (1974) found that the phase decreased in the nighttime in association with the main phase of two large geomagnetic storms during 1968 to 1969. Kleimenova et al. (2004) analyzed the NWC signal received at Kamchatka, a low-mid latitude path, and found distinct anomalies in the amplitude and phase. They obtained negative phase and amplitude variations of the VLF signal both during day and nighttimes during the main storm phase days, but the nighttime variations were more pronounced. There have not been other studies on magnetic storm associated subionospheric changes purely at low latitude paths; however, there have been several studies on VLF perturbations due to storm-induced energetic electron precipitation at mid and high latitudes (e.g., Peter et al.2006; Clilverd et al.2010).
In this paper, we examine the effects of solar flares and geomagnetic storms (purely low latitude) on VLF paths during the period December 2006 to 2008, a period of unprecedented minimum during solar cycles 23 and 24 which has provided us with a unique opportunity to study the low latitude D-region response to space weather effects. During this extended period of solar minimum, the ionosphere was contracted to the lowest level (Heelis et al.2009; Liu et al.2011). The signal perturbations due to solar flares of varying intensities and any relationship between them are investigated. Typical VLF perturbation events associated with solar flares are modeled using LWPC to determine the D-region parameters. The NWC and NPM signals have been analyzed for any variation in their average signal strengths during complete daylight and nighttime propagation conditions to study the geomagnetic storm effects.
X-ray (0.1 to 0.8 nm) peak flux intensities for different classes of flares
Peak flux intensities (W/m2)
I < 10−7
10−7 ≤ I < 10−6
10−6 ≤ I < 10−5
10−5 ≤ I < 10−4
10−4 ≤ I
Occurrence of solar flares of different classes as observed by GOES for the periods of data analysis
Number of flares
Jan. 2007 to Dec. 2007
Jan. 2008 to Dec. 2008
To study the storm effects on VLF propagation, we use only the amplitude data for the NWC and NPM signals which cover purely low-latitude paths. Due to complicated modulation of the VLF transmitter signals, it is often difficult to accurately record the phase for long periods (several hours) and it does not follow the same values as before the temporary transmitter switch off; hence, continuous phase data was not available for significant periods during the storm analysis. During the period of data analysis (Dec. 2006 to 2008), seven storms (disturbance storm time index (Dst) < −50 nT) were registered, for which the VLF amplitude data were analyzed for a day before the storm, on the storm day, and 3 days after the storm for any perturbations. Since the amplitude variations are large during the terminator transitions (during occurrence of day and night minima), only the amplitude during the period when the TRGCP was in complete daylight and darkness and with an almost constant signal level were analyzed for any perturbations. The average values for the daytime and nighttime signal strengths for both NWC and NPM were calculated for the period 12 to 18 December 2006. This was the period during which only one storm out of the seven studied, displayed an anomalous effect on the VLF signals.
Results and discussion
Solar flare associated VLF perturbations
Two solar flares of class M1.8 and X9.0 occurred on 05 December 2006 and the effects of these were observed on the amplitude of NWC signal. The M1.8 flare started at 07:45 UT (19:45 LT) and ended at 8:06 UT while the X9.0 flare started at 10:18 UT (22:18 LT) and ended at 10:45 UT. The VTX signal was off during this time while the NPM and NLK TRGCPs were in dark; hence, no effect was apparent on their signals. The variations in the amplitude of NWC signal along with the respective X-ray flux intensities during both the flares are shown in Figure 3a, b. The ΔA of 3.6 and 13.4 dB for the M1.8 and X9.0 flares, respectively, was estimated. A feature of interest seen here is the time difference in the peak occurrences of the solar flux intensities and the respective amplitudes during these flares. These peaks are marked with arrows in the panels (a) and (b). A time delay (Δt) of about 4 min is obtained for the M1.8 flare, with the amplitude peak occurring after the solar flare flux peak. Such time delays have been reported by Grubor et al. (2005) and by Zigman et al. (2007). They attributed this time delay to the electron density peak which occurs slightly after the flux peak and provides the information about the ionospheric response to the enhanced flare flux. According to Zigman et al. (2007), the time delay is needed for the D-region recombination-ionization processes to recover balance under the enhancement of X-ray flare. This time is also an important key to solve the continuity equation of electrons and identify the responses of ionospheric D-region to solar flares. The X9.0 and X3.4 flares show a time difference of about 2 min between the flux and amplitude peaks with the amplitude peak occurring before the flare flux peak in contrast to what is expected. These are the flares for which the X-ray flux initially increased sharply and then gradually in contrast to other flares when increase in flux was sharp throughout. It seems that the amplitude did not respond proportionally to the gradual increase in the flux; however, the initial response of amplitude was always slightly after the increase in X-ray flux intensity as in all the events shown. The plausible explanation for such negative time lags could be that during the gradual increase in flux during the solar flares, the recombination/attachment processes do not allow the D-region electron density to increase further; hence, the amplitude does not continue to increase. In addition, because the X9.0 flare occurred during the time of the sunset minima on NWC, the amplitude did not respond proportionately to the solar flux intensity. The effect of flares that occur during sunset/sunrise transition are not very apparent because the day/light changes of propagation conditions dominate over the effect of solar flares even for the strongest flares (Grubor et al.2005). Similar time delays when the amplitude peak occurs earlier than the flare flux peak have been reported for some events by authors like Tan et al. (2013) who used the NWC signal recorded at Tay Nguyen University, Vietnam. However, the mechanism of this phenomenon, which is very rare, has not been clearly understood.
Another flare of class X3.4 started at 2:14 UT (14:14 LT) and ended at 2:57 UT on 13 December 2006 with the peak flux at 2:40 UT. During this time, the NPM and NLK TRGCPs were in daylight while NWC and VTX transmitters were off. The variations in the amplitudes of NPM and NLK signals during solar flare along with the X-ray flux intensity are presented in Figure 3c, d, respectively. The ΔA values found were 5.8 dB for NPM and 9.9 dB for NLK signal. The phase perturbations could not be obtained, as phase was unstable for both the signals.
A solar flare of class X1.5 occurred on 14 December 2006 at 21:07 UT (09:07 LT) and ended at 22:26 UT with its peak flux at 22:15 UT. The amplitudes of VTX and NLK with the corresponding solar flux intensity are presented in Figure 3e, f. The values of ΔA were found to be 4 and 8.8 dB for VTX and NLK signals, respectively. Though not very apparent, but still the peak of the amplitude of the signal seems to correspond well with the peak of the X-ray flux. For NLK signal, the amplitude rises proportionally with flux up to the peak value but decreases slowly when compared to the flux after the peak. The low amplitude value uptil 21:30 UT represents the signal being off air while the short negative spikes are due to power offs in the VLF telemetry.
Two solar flare events occurred on 29 January 2007: (1) class B8.5 that began at 21:34 UT (09:34 LT) and ended at 21:45 UT and (2) class C1.5 that began at 22:32 UT (10:32 LT) and ended at 23:21 UT. The variation in the amplitude and phase of NLK signal during the solar flares along with the X-ray flux intensity are presented in Figure 4a, b, respectively. Pacini and Raulin (2006) concluded that minimum energy input necessary to produce any sudden phase or amplitude anomaly is about 2.5 × 10−6 J m−2 during solar minimum and about 7.0 × 10−6 J m−2 during solar maximum. To our knowledge, solar flares of class C and above have been reported so far to show detectable effect on VLF transmissions. However, at our station on 29 January 2007, the solar flare of magnitude less than C class (B8.5, 8.5 × 10−7 J m−2) showed detectable enhancement in the amplitude and phase of NLK signal. The values of ΔA were 0.4 and 1.0 dB for the B8.5 and C1.8 classes, respectively, and the phase perturbations (∆ϕ) were 8° and 40° due to these two flares, respectively. The NPM signal was off at that time. No effect is seen on the NWC and VTX signals which may be due to transition of the terminator from the receiver to the transmitter. From the results presented here for the 29 January 2007 solar flares, we can see that both the phase and amplitude vary in proportion with the logarithm of the X-ray flux. The phase and amplitude could be useful and convenient for extrapolating the X-ray flux when the GOES detectors saturate during very strong solar flares to determine the actual flux densities associated with the strong solar flares. GOES detectors saturate for solar flares stronger than X17 class (Thomson et al.2005).
The two solar flare perturbation events of 29 January 2007 (both the amplitude and phase available) have been modeled to determine the D-region electron density changes associated with these flares. The observed VLF amplitude and phase perturbations on NLK signal are simulated using the LWPC V2.1 code for Wait’s model of the lower ionosphere characterized by two parameters: the sharpness (β in km−1) and reflection height (H' in km). The solar zenith angle values for mid TRGCP of NLK-Suva path at the times of occurrence of the flares were calculated which were then used to estimate the values of H' and β using the relationship given by McRae and Thomson (2000).
By varying the values of H' and β so as to match the observed perturbed amplitude (A + ∆A) and phase (ϕ + ∆ϕ), the values of H' and β for solar flare-perturbed ionosphere were obtained. The values of H' and β for the unperturbed daytime ionosphere were found to be H' = 72.6 km and β = 0.350 km−1 during the B8.5 flare, and H' = 75.0 km and β = 0.300 km−1 during the C1.5 class flare. By adjusting the values of H' (in intervals of 0.05 km) and β (in intervals of 0.001 km−1) to match the values of perturbed amplitude and phase during the two flares, the estimated values came as H' = 72.0 km and β = 0.360 km−1 for the B8.5 class flare, and H' = 73.8 km and β = 0.305 km−1 for the C1.5 class flare. In both the cases, the H' decreased (∆H' = 0.60 ± 0.05 km for B8.5 and ∆H' = 1.20 ± 0.05 km for C1.5 flare) while the β increased (∆β = 0.010 ± 0.001 km−1 for B8.5 and ∆β = 0.005 ± 0.001 km−1 for C1.5 flare). The results show that there is significant change in the H' (0.6 and 1.0 km) for B and C class flares respectively; however, there is no significant change in β (0.01 and 0.005 km−1) for both the flares which is within the model accuracy range. The X-rays from solar flares ionize the neutral atmosphere at D-region heights (40 to 90 km) greatly increasing the electron densities there and thus markedly lowering the effective VLF reflection height. This lowering of the reflection height is the main cause of the VLF amplitude and phase increases observed during the flares. In addition, the electron density profile at the lower edge of the D-region also sharpens during flares in the sense that the rate of increase of electron density with height (β) increases, and this also affects the VLF amplitude and phase at the receiver (Thomson and Clilverd 2001; McRae and Thomson 2004). The relationship between the flare power and the changes in the H' and β during solar flares of varying intensities has been presented by Thomson et al. (2005). An almost linear reduction of H' with (the logarithm of) the flare flux was obtained for C1 to X45 class flares. The β was found to increase linearly with the flare flux for C1 to X1 classes, levels off for X1 to X5, and started increasing linearly again after X10 class to very large flares (up to X45).
Geomagnetic storm associated VLF perturbations
Details of intense geomagnetic storms with Dst < −50 nT and effects on VLF signals during data analysis
VLF amplitude perturbations
14 to 16 Dec 2006
Seen on NWC and NPM
24 to 25 March 2007
21 to 22 May 2007
25 to 26 October 2007
20 to 21 November 2007
8 to 9 March 2008
11 to 12 October 2008
During solar flares, both the VLF amplitude and phase are found to vary with the logarithm of the X-ray flux. From our data, VLF amplitude being very stable and available for very long periods when compared to the phase can be effectively used to study the relationship between the solar X-ray flux intensity and the amplitude perturbations. A best fit curve of amplitude perturbation (dB) versus the flare power for NLK, NPM, and NWC signals reveals the following features; the curve is steeper and quite linear between the flare power levels of 0 to 15 dB; below 0 dB, the curve gets less steep and flattens towards −5 dB-flare power level, while it also gets less steep above 15 dB and almost flattens at around 20 dB.
VLF amplitude perturbation level versus the flux intensity for solar flares on the NLK, NPM, and NWC paths shows that the level of perturbation is greatest for the NLK path (max. of approximately 11.5 dB), less for NPM (max. of approximately 6.0 dB) and least for the NWC path (max. of approximately 3.5 dB).
The X-rays from solar flares have the tendency to ionize the neutral atmosphere at D-region heights which greatly increases the electron densities thus markedly lowers the effective VLF reflection height. The effects of solar flares can be observed on VLF signals for even small flares up to B class (B8.5 as reported here) and causes changes in the ionospheric D-region parameters, H' and β during solar minimum. The H' is found to decrease while the β is found to increase during flares and these changes are dependent on the strength/class of the flares. Generally, the greater the flare, the larger the reduction in the H' and larger the increase in β.
Moderate geomagnetic storms (six storms, −50 nT ≥ Dst > −100 nT) have not shown any effect on the D-region ionosphere at the low latitude as evident from no change in the strength of NWC and NPM signals recorded at a low latitude station, Suva. The observed amplitude of NPM and NWC signals clearly show depression in the average strengths both during the day and nighttimes of paths associated with intense geomagnetic storm of 14 to 16 December 2006 (Dst = −146 nT). However, this is clearly an area of further research for low latitude paths.
Authors are thankful to the Faculty Research Committee of The University of the South Pacific for research grant, which enabled them to carry out this research.
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