Electric Skies

There are hidden messages in the sky, if only we had the eyes to read them.

Up high, above the clouds and beyond most peoples’ awareness, the ionosphere blusters and boils with electric turbulence. It is the byproduct of our atmosphere shielding us from a constant siege of solar and cosmic radiation, which tears up air molecules and leaves a layer of electrons in its wake, sometimes visible as the aurora borealis. The ionosphere is defined as the layer of the atmosphere that has sufficient electric energy to affect the propagation of radio waves. Satellites call the ionosphere their home, as do weather balloons, the highest-flying jets, rockets to the stars, and ships to the edge of the atmosphere. Their operations are determined by the ionospheric environment, and they must coordinate their actions around the ionosphere in order to reliably carry out their mission. There is weather up there too, but instead of the familiar weather of moisture, temperature, and rainfall, ionospheric weather is made of ions, electrons, and insane bursts of energy that can explode metals. (Fortunately, we are shielded from most of those effects.)

You don’t have to be in the ionosphere to be affected by it. The scope of human activities that are directly affected by the everyday changes of the ionosphere is surprising to most. If you care about GPS guidance for your Uber driver or dating app, communication over satellite phone, listening to XM radio, and the location of the airplane that your relatives are riding to visit from another country, then you care about the ionosphere. All telecommunications on Earth either bounce against or shoot through the ionosphere.

These activities and more are all at the mercy of the ionosphere and can be totally cut off during an ionospheric storm. These storms feature severe electric turbulences which mix and jumble normal pathways of RF signals, preventing the radio signal beam from flying true, like a mirage does to light. Satellite GPS and communications cannot work when the signal is scrambled unrecognizably or lost completely. Military operations around positioning, navigation, and timing tend to be faster and have more accuracy problems than civilian needs, so the same turbulences that wouldn’t be noticeable for civilians have cost governments tens of millions of dollars.

Though so much human technology operates in the ionospheric context, it is the least known layer of our atmosphere. Whereas we can know the weather hour by hour right outside our door, for the ionosphere we can only know what the weather will tend to be this week somewhere above our country.

Humans did not have a good reason to understand the ionosphere until very recently. While weather was a primary determinant of human events like the World Series, D-Day, and a Saturday family picnic, the troubles from adverse ionospheric events had not been evident. You can still have a lovely day in complete ignorance of the ionospheric state above you. However, the more we integrate Wi-Fi, 5G, and satellite services into our lives, the more we will have our days ruined by a surprise in space weather.

But the methods for understanding the weather on the earth’s surface and the space weather in the ionosphere are fundamentally the same. For weather forecasting, doppler radars and other sensors collect weather data around the world, refine that data through algorithms, and present the current and forecasted data onto maps. For the areas without weather sensors, computers fill the gaps with best guesses, smoothing the gradations of temperature, humidity, and other building blocks of weather. For the ionosphere, there simply isn’t the same amount or quality of data. Further, the fundamental properties of the ionosphere are less well known, so the computers must make larger assumptions in resolving data gaps. Bigger holes, and worse tools to fill those holes.

This is the problem precursor-SPC is solving today. They are bringing computational rigor and hardware out to sense the ionosphere to shed real, operational light onto the ionosphere. precursor has developed a hardware ground station that measures the ionosphere to high sensitivity, and a proprietary AI algorithm that can combine, assimilate, and fill the holes between the sensors. The resulting ionospheric data is 1000x more accurate than the state of the art. Instead of knowing if it’s just a bad weather day, you can know that you should go outside at 4:00 pm with three layers of clothing and avoid Cincinnati. That amount of operational granularity is projected to save airlines millions in operational costs when flying over the north pole or in the arctic circle, save space and ground infrastructure operators a combined billions and improve the efficacy of military operations by an equivalent amount.

precursor’s representation of the ionosphere is in fact so high resolution, they have noticed patterns no one else has noticed before: a reliable causal relationship between certain ionospheric disturbances and future seismic events.

The electric nature of earthquakes isn’t completely unheard of; it is well known that the magnetic fields around Earth are in part due to our liquid mantle, otherwise known as a bunch of liquid rocks shooting off electric current and magnetic fields. Another known phenomenon is that rock, when under sufficiently high pressures, moves from acting as an insulator to a conductor of electricity. This seismic electricity shoots up and sends visible ripples through the ionosphere. Before, scientists could not distinguish if one particular perturbation came from solar or seismic activity. But now, with precursor, we can have the whole picture not be blurry for the first time and can characterize the difference in what solar activity disturbance is, and seismic activity disturbance.

Earthquakes grow and progress through a set of predictable steps, and precursor predicts earthquakes by characterizing the observed ionospheric turbulence equivalents of those same steps. These steps are the earthquake’s precursors from which the company derives its name. By and large, earthquakes result when tectonic plates grind against each other with localized high-pressure points. This visible observable seismic fact happens around 72 hours before the “snap” and must build up to sufficient strength before the snap happens and damage is done. From this, we see that with sufficiently high accuracy of the ionospheric model, you can know where, when, and how strong earthquakes are going to happen at least 72 hours in advance of the snap.

There are other entities that know how earthquakes happen, but their solutions are fundamentally different from what precursor does. The US Geological Survey can tell you when the earthquake’s echo will be, a few seconds to a minute after the initial quake. But little can be done in those few seconds to avoid critical damages at the event horizon. Others can tell you there will be a big earthquake in California sometime in the next 30 years — sort of obvious but not particularly useful other than for writing disaster movie scripts.

Preparedness is essential. Knowing how damaging earthquakes can be, and how much can be done to prepare for large seismic events 72 hours prior, the value of precursor is clear. The “big one” no longer has to be a complete surprise that can happen at any time. Now, we can shine a light on this terror, and be more aware of the world we live in.