Citizen scientists discover cyclical pattern of complexity in solar storms

Example images showing three example CMEs in ranked order of subjective complexity increasing from low (left-hand image) through to high (right-hand image). Credit: NASA Heliospheric Imager data courtesy of RAL Space, made available by the UK Solar System Data Centre.

Citizen scientists have discovered that solar storms become more complex as the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle reaches its maximum – a finding which could help forecasters predict which space weather events could have potentially devastating consequences for modern technologies at Earth.

Protect our Planet from Solar Storms’, a research project launched by the University of Reading, the Science Museum Group and Zooniverse in May 2018, asked volunteers to evaluate pairs of images of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and decide which seemed the most visually complex.

Overall, the project ranked the complexity of 1100 observations of CMEs taken by the wide-angle Heliospheric Imagers on-board NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft. The results will be presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting  in Lancaster today (Tuesday, 2nd July) and will feature in the exhibition The Sun, which opens at the Science and Industry Museum, in Manchester, on 20th July.

“The STEREO spacecraft capture images of solar storms as they erupt from the Sun. Some CMEs look very simple, like bubbles, while others are far more complex, like shattered light bulbs. Surprisingly, we found that the annual average complexity values actually follow the solar activity cycle,” said Shannon Jones of the University of Reading.

CMEs are a key driver of hazardous space weather that, if directed at Earth, can cause serious damage to electricity grids, satellite navigation and communication infrastructure. Current prediction methods, based on the direction of the magnetic field within solar storms, are only really effective around an hour before the storm hits our planet. The complexity of an eruption could provide advanced warning about its likelihood of causing disruption.

“The most damaging storms have a magnetic field that is offset by 180 degrees to Earth’s. Because complex storms have a magnetic field that keep changing direction, they are more likely to move into this alignment at least for a short period of time. The link between complexity and the solar cycle is important because not only are there more storms during solar maximum, their variability makes them more likely to contain an orientation of magnetic field that may affect our modern technologies,” said Chris Scott of the University of Reading, who devised the study.

The Reading team has now launched a new phase of experiments on Zooniverse, where volunteers will assess the impact of brightness on complexity, weigh up how to quantify complexity, and study differences in the STEREO A and B cameras.

“Our results show that storms in the STEREO B camera were consistently ranked as less complex than in STEREO A, and that might be because the two cameras are not identical,” said Ms Jones. “As we know the size of an object each camera can resolve, this might give a clue to the size of structures that people interpret as complex. The input of the citizen science volunteers will be invaluable in helping us start to understand the structure of CMEs in more detail.”

“It has been a pleasure to work with Zooniverse and the University of Reading team, following a long tradition of engaging our visitors in research, through our Live Science programme, and in citizen science too, notably Hooked On Music and our Turing Sunflower experiments at the Science and Industry Museum,” said Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum Group, which includes the Science Museum, Science and Industry Museum, Science and Media Museum, National Railway Museum and Locomotion.

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting is taking place at Lancaster University until 4th July. The Sun opens at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester, on 20th July and runs until 5th January 2020.


Shannon Jones and Chris Scott can be contacted via the National Astronomy Meeting Press Office from Monday 1st July to Thursday 4th July on +44 (0) 1524 595 245 / +44 (0) 1524 592 120, or the University of Reading Press Office +44 (0) 118 378 5757,

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7292 3979
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 699

Ms Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243

Ms Kate Arkless Gray
Royal Astronomical Society

Pete Bryant
University of Reading
Tel: +44 (0) 118 378 4912

Kat Harrison-Dibbits
Science and Industry Museum
Tel: +44 (0) 161 6060176 or +44 (0) 161 6060213

Interview facilities

Media representatives are cordially invited to attend the meeting and can register at no cost. Press room facilities will be available in Faraday Seminar Room 2 for the duration of the conference – from 0900 BST on Monday 1 July to 1500 BST on Thursday 4 July. For free registration for the meeting, please contact the press team via

Scientists at the conference are also available for interview via both a radio studio and TV studio at Lancaster University; the Globelynx TV network offers broadcast quality HD video to the world’s leading broadcasters and an ISDN line for interviews in a radio booth.

Please book these via the Lancaster University Press Office on +44(0)1524 592612.

Notes for editors

Citizen Scientists Find Clue to Help Predict Devastating Solar Storms by Roger Highfield, Science Director, Science Museum Group (embargoed until 00:01 BST on 2nd July 2019:

Protect our planet from solar storms website:

RAL Space STEREO webpage:

Science and Industry Museum webpage:

About the National Astronomy Meeting

Around 500 astronomers and space scientists will gather at Lancaster University, from 30 June – 4 July, for the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting 2019 (NAM 2019). The conference is the largest annual astronomy and space science event in the UK and will see leading scientists from the UK and around the world present the latest cutting-edge research.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website and via the conference Twitter account.

Details of media releases are on our dedicated conference page.

Scientists at the conference are also available for interview via both a radio studio and TV studio at Lancaster University; the Globelynx TV network offers broadcast quality HD video to the world’s leading broadcasters and an ISDN line for interviews in a radio booth.

Please book these via the Lancaster University Press Office on +44(0)1524 592612.

About the Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on TwitterFacebookInstagram and YouTube

About the Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB and the ESO telescopes in Chile.

STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory.

Follow STFC on Twitter

About Lancaster University

Lancaster is a research-intensive university which combines world-class research with excellent teaching and high levels of student satisfaction. 

Lancaster University is among the best in the UK. Top 10 in all three major national league tables, it is also highly ranked in international league tables such as the QS World Rankings.

Its 6th-place ranking in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019, as well as the award of the coveted University of the Year title for 2018, cements its place as an elite UK university.

More information on Lancaster University

About the Science and Industry Museum

The Science and Industry Museum tells the story of where science met industry and the modern world began. Manchester was one of the first global, industrial cities, and its epic rise, decline and resurrection has been echoed in countless other cities around the world. From textiles to computers, the objects and documents on display in the museum tell stories of everyday life over the last 200 years, from light bulbs to locomotives.  The museum’s mission is to inspire all its visitors, including future scientists and inventors, with the story of how ideas can change the world, from the industrial revolution to today and beyond.

The Science and Industry Museum is part of the Science Museum Group, a family of museums which also includes the Science Museum in London; the National Railway Museum in York and Shildon; and the Science and Media Museum in Bradford. The Science Museum Group is devoted to the history and contemporary practice of science, medicine, technology, industry and media. With five million visitors each year and an unrivalled collection, it is the most significant group of museums of science and innovation worldwide.

About the University of Reading

Research at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology is finding solutions to critical problems in the natural environment, on Earth and in outer space. Find out about the range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses teaching the next generation of scientists at

Submitted by Helen Klus on Mon, 01/07/2019 - 13:55