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How my research program came to include space weather

Over the last three years I have devoted a portion of my research efforts to the impact of space weather on agriculture. I am neither a physicist nor a meteorologist so, I have been learning a lot. The background story started many years ago and is difficult to narrow down to a single event.

Sometime in 2020, colleagues introduced me to scientists at Aerospace Corporation interested in evaluating ionospheric scintillation impacts on digital agriculture. A Space Environment Engineering and Science Applications Workshop (SEESAW) for precision agriculture was recorded in July 2021 with follow-up written report posted a year later. My SEESAW contribution was an economic assessment of how ionospheric scintillation affects agriculture when GNSS is not available. So, I dusted off an old unpublished conference paper.

Over a decade ago, I conducted an analysis regarding aggregate costs if GNSS became unavailable to farm operations across the corn belt. That study was based on a previous 2004 study that evaluated benefits (reducing skips and overlaps) from transitioning from visual marker manual guidance to lightbar and automated guidance. At first the notion of efficiency losses was not well received, given no GNSS outage had ever been observed. Still, at least one conference participant suggested an outage may be the result of extreme solar activity. Assumptions underlying the 2009 study were not originally specific to space weather, however ionospheric scintillation is a prime example of how GNSS outage might occur.

Given that the 11-year solar maximum cycle is approaching, geomagnetic activity producing aurorae and radio blackouts are increasing. In addition, not only agriculture but society in general have become more reliant upon digital technology than ever before. Agricultural reliance on GNSS is the issue my research is evaluating, including exploration of risk mitigation.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with a colleague from University of Minnesota, Dr. Kathy Draeger, and successfully secured Extension Disaster Education Network funding to develop what may be the first Extension white paper on space weather impacts on agriculture. Kathy and I recorded a podcast announcing the project and discussed the background for our Extension audiences. I look forward to sharing updates on social media along the journey and providing the white paper and presentations sometime in 2024. Follow along on social media using #spaceWx.


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