Two very different kinds of climate are explored by this year’s West Virginia University Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Researchers.

Paul Cassak, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, received the award for his exploration of how solar storms affect the magnetosphere, the magnetic shield that surrounds our planet, and protects us from harmful material ejected from the Sun.

Amy Hessl, Ph.D., associate professor of geography, garnered her Outstanding Researcher Award for her examinations of tree rings, which help determine how climate may have affected wildfire.
Cassak studies magnetic reconnection, a process that occurs in extremely hot gasses called plasmas. His work specifically focuses on how the Sun’s magnetic field releases energy during solar flares.

Solar flares are usually associated with the release of high-energy particles into space. These eruptions are known as coronal mass ejections. A large coronal mass ejection can contain billions of tons of gas and other matter that pours into space at several million miles per hour. The charged particles in this cloud stream toward any planet or spacecraft in its path, and when the particles collide with the Earth, they can cause a geomagnetic storm—a disturbance in the magnetosphere.

Solar storms cause the beautiful phenomenon called the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights; but they can also disrupt technology and communication systems on Earth including those used by aircraft, satellite navigation signals and electrical power grids. A 2008 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that an extreme storm could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages by crippling communications on Earth and causing chaos around the world.

The ability to predict the frequency and intensity of solar flares and the storms they produce would go a long way toward protecting our infrastructure from costly damage. Predicting the effects of solar storms on the Earth is called space weather.

Scientists postulate that the sun’s magnetic fields break and release their energy in the same way a rubber band releases its energy when it snaps in a process called magnetic reconnection. By studying reconnection, Cassak and his colleagues may one day be able to track when and where these solar incidents occur and how they will impact the Earth.

“In examining how magnetic fields release energy we are finding important information about how solar storms work,” said Cassak. “For the solar storms that happened two months ago, scientists knew it would hit Earth but didn’t know how much it would affect things. We hope this research will lead to a way to know which storms will cause us problems.”

Since 1999, Amy Hessl has been researching the history of wildfires and their correlation to climate change by examining the tree rings from the Pacific Northwest, West Virginia and Mongolia.

Few places on Earth have observational records of past fire activity prior to the 1950s and satellite records of fire are relatively new. Consequently, the best information about the extent, intensity and variability of past fire regimes come from the fire scars recorded in the annual growth of trees.

Wildfire is a critical ecological process, particularly in forested ecosystems, where it helps shape the structure, specific composition and function of the forests throughout the world. Fire also plays an important role in the global carbon cycle since it can speed up the release of carbon dioxide and black carbon into the atmosphere, both of which contribute to climate change.

Though Hessl’s research has taken her from the Pacific Northwest to Mongolia, she is best known for her research in West Virginia. Her studies of fire history in the state are the only fire studies ever completed, allowing scientists to better understand climate change and the role of fire in settlements of European-Americans who used burning techniques to open up grazing and farming land.

“Understanding historical fire regimes gives us perspective on modern fires,” Hessl said. “Should we let them burn or put them out? Are they a natural feature of our forests or are they something people have imposed on the natural system? My hope is that this research will help land managers understand the natural role of fire in forest systems and make the connection between climate change and changing fire activity.”

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