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Keywords:

  • coronal mass ejections;
  • forecasting;
  • space weather

[1] Coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—massive explosions of dense plasma that originate in the lower solar atmosphere and propagate outward into the solar wind—are the leading cause of significant space weather effects within Earth's environment. Computational models of the heliosphere such as WSA-Enlil offer the possibility of predicting whether a given CME will become geo-effective and, if so, the likely time of arrival at Earth. To be meaningful, such a forecast model is dependent upon accurately characterizing key parameters for the CME, notably its speed and direction of propagation, and its angular width. Studies by Zhao et al. (2002) and Xie et al. (2004) suggest that these key CME parameters can be deduced from geometric analysis of the elliptical “halo” forms observed in coronagraph images on spacecraft such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and which result from a CME whose propagation is roughly toward or away from the observer. Both studies assume that the CME presents a circular cross-section and maintains a constant angular width during its radial expansion, the so called “cone model.” Development work at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has been concerned with building and testing software tools to allow forecasters to determine these CME parameters routinely within an operational context, a key aspect of transitioning the WSA-Enlil heliospheric model into operations at the National Weather Service. We find “single viewpoint” cone analysis, while a useful start, to be highly problematic in many real-world situations. In particular, it is extremely difficult to establish objectively the correct ellipse that should be applied to a given halo form and that small changes in the exact ellipse chosen can lead to large differences in the deduced CME parameters. The inaccuracies in the technique are particularly evident for analysis of the “nearly circular” elliptical forms which result from CMEs that are propagating directly toward the observer and are therefore the most likely to be geo-effective. In working to resolve this issue we have developed a new three-dimensional (3-D) graphics-based analysis system which seeks to reduce inaccuracies by analyzing a CME using coronagraph images taken concurrently by SOHO and also by the two Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft, which provide additional viewing locations well away from the Sun-Earth line. The resulting “three view” technique has led to the development of the CME Analysis Tool (CAT), an operational software system in routine use at the SWPC as the primary means to determine CME parameters for input into the WSA-Enlil model. Results from the operational WSA-Enlil system are presented: utilizing CAT to provide CME input parameters, we show that, during the first year of operations at SWPC, the WSA-Enlil model has forecasted the arrival of CMEs at Earth with an average error 7.5 h.