The Washington Post

Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather?

This image provided by NASA shows the sun releasing a M1.7 class flare associated with a prominence eruption on April, 16, 2012. This image was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

That’s the screaming message I came away with from attending the most recent Space Weather Enterprise Forum in Washington on June 5 in regard to an extreme “end of life as we know it” geomagnetic storm.

Link: Forum materials, including abstracts, summary report, and individual presentations

What follows are my observations from the forum complemented by my analysis of their implications.

The electric power grid is vulnerable

As acknowledged by authoritative forum speakers, there is no actionable plan in place to prevent the shutdown of much of the nationwide electric power grid. And while studies and emergency response exercises (e.g. Secure Grid ‘11) have examined/rehearsed possible response strategies, there is no operational plan to recover nationally from the immediate and longer term impacts of a significant solar storm on the electric power supply and most other technology-based systems we take for granted.

Consider first, with the the multi-day power outages and associated hardships caused by “Derechosaurus” (the derecho storm of June 29 in Washington, D.C. ) fresh in mind, the ramifications of being without electrical power for months or longer, and affecting much of the U.S. (and perhaps much of the globe).

As discussed in my first and subsequent articles on space weather (see bottom of post), this is a distinct possibility should the Earth be struck by the equivalent of the 1859 Carrington event, the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record. Of course, then there was no national electric power grid, or satellites, hi-tech communication systems, GPS, etc.

Directly or indirectly, a comparable geomagnetic storm today (and foreseeable future) would likely include widespread and long-term disruptions on transportation and commerce, agriculture and food stocks, medical facilities, satellite-based communication and navigation systems, national security, etc.

While the threat is relatively small (perhaps 12% over the next decade) the potential impacts on life as we know it are clearly tremendous. Experts repeatedly make the point that the question is not if, but when (as, for example, major earthquake).

A key point of emphasis here is that even a direct hit by more frequent though less intense geomagnetic storms can significantly disrupt everyday life to the degree that would render the effects of “Derechosaurus” seem inconsequential in comparison. The nature of the beast would be different and considerably more difficult to deal with. For example, rather than having to restore power from downed power lines over a relatively limited region, the challenge would be dealing with blown and extremely hard to replace high voltage electric transformers across several states.

A reasonable parallel to this hypothetical but realistically plausible situation was the electric power blackout attributed to a geomagnetic storm which plunged the entire province of Quebec into darkness in March, 1989 . Fortunately, power was recovered in this case in less than a day because most damage was to easily replaceable switching components of the power transmission system rather than damage to a number of to central transformers.

Additionally, as I first learned at the June forum, it’s possible that even moderately intense geomagnetic storms could trigger demise of transformers that have experienced cumulative damage over time from previous hits. In fact, it was noted there is reason to believe just this was responsible for the sudden and officially unexplained explosion of a transformer in Boston on March 13 this year which coincided with a series of solar storms leading up to this event.

The national power grids are designed to withstand a single failure such as this without leading to a cascade to a more widespread collapse of the system. However, cumulative damages over time might increase vulnerability to transformers and other susceptible components of the nation’s power grid (good example of not knowing what we don’t know. Another example involves reliability of GPS discussed later).

Are we ready even for these sorts of lesser than end-of-life-as-we know it disaster? Not likely - which brings us back to the negative answer to the question posed in the title of this post.

Awareness is increasing, but preparedness lacking

When I first reported on the threats posed by space weather over three years ago - based upon a newly released report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) - there appeared little public awareness of the issues. More importantly, as I pointed out, the potential threats were almost completely under the radar of responsible government agencies, including the agency primarily responsible for dealing with national emergencies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Subsequent to the release of the NAS report and the beginnings of media attention, increased interest and concern evolved at an increasing pace given the approaching active phase of the Solar Cycle expected to peak in 2013. In this context, there has been increased emphasis on ground- and satellite-based observations of solar activity and research directed toward increased understanding and prediction of solar phenomena.

Space weather has been in the news

In parallel, there has been a series of national and international meetings, workshops and the like (such as the June forum in Washington) involving government and private sector experts to review and expound upon fundamental issues. They include the latest science of space weather, the nature and consequences of threats posed by solar storms, the capabilities and limitations on what (if anything) meaningful can be done to mitigate impacts to vulnerable technology (power grid, satellites, etc), and, most importantly, how to respond to and recover from the possibly hellish nightmare of widespread multi-disaster scenarios lasting for months to years.

Of course, this may be to a significant degree a largely insurmountable puzzle to solve, scientifically and politically.

Political and scientific challenges posed by space weather threat

On the science side, there has been an impressive increase in understanding solar physics enabled largely by increased ground- and satellite-based observations of solar activity. An operational computer model has come online which can predict the time of arrival of a solar burst from the sun reaching the Earth if so directed, plus or minus about 7 hours. Howeve,r neither this nor any model in the near future is able to predict the intensity of a solar storm nor whether the magnetic fields of a storm and Earth are aligned to absorb or repel a geomagnetic attack.

Link: Why forecasting space weather is difficult

Currently, the orientation of magnetic fields can be determined only by observations from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite. ACE is well beyond its expected lifetime and could fail just about anytime. Fortunately, a replacement satellite designated the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is scheduled to be launched in June, 2014.

But should ACE fail before then, we would be totally blind to knowing whether a calamitous strike is imminent. Last minute preparations, such as shutting down power and satellite systems might be possible. However, with less than an hour advance notice, even if an operational capability to respond and recover were in place, there would be little to base a decision on whether to spin up plans – involving major logistical issues, expense, and coordination of stakeholders -- OR take the chance of escaping the bullet possibly aimed at one’s head. Imagine the stakes here compared to the measly problems and controversy that inevitably seem to arise when deciding to stage snow plows, close schools, etc in advance of a possible, but less than certain snowstorm.

On the political side, it doesn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to recognize that budget issues dominate across the board from cities, states, to the national government. No doubt billions of dollars would be required to set up and implement a national plan to prepare for a widespread and long-term disaster scenario. It would involve expanding and augmenting by a factor of probably at least several hundred the existing capabilities to deal with local disasters, such as those resulting from hurricane landfalls, floods, and tornadoes. In fact, even if expense were not an issue, there seemed to be no inkling of just how you could scale up dealing with a local disaster to a widespread, long-term, multifaceted national (and possibly international) disaster.

A major problem with protecting the national power grid is that it consists of 2100 high voltage transformers run by an assortment of 5000 or so independent entities. One speaker (Dr. Michael Gregg) estimated that it would require a relatively few million dollars to protect some valuable components of the electric power system. However, following these remarks, it came to light during the discussion session that such a measure has lacked support owing to legal and business constraints by these 5000 entities in competition with one another. It probably goes without saying that politicians are not going to enter that fray. Nor would they be willing to budget the much greater expense of acquiring and storing backup high voltage transformers. The threat to nuclear power plants (see: Are nuclear reactors vulnerable to solar storms?) was hardly mentioned.

[One other political problem of note is what comes after DISCVR. It’s considered an interim solution to replace ACE and there is no planned follow on. A constellation of small satellites is being considered as a permanent ACE replacement, but moving ahead appears at least in part a casualty of the recent controversy over funding of the Joint Polar Satellite System and, perhaps, differences between Department of Defense and NOAA in design of an early warning system to the extent their respective missions do not overlap.]

One item I had not heard before the forum (and possibly a surprise to many readers) was that solar storms otherwise not worthy of much attention (compared to above) can degrade the accuracy of GPS positioning systems from several feet to several miles. Moreover, this can occur without a user being aware of the problem, which for many applications can be extremely costly (e.g, GPS-based precision agriculture), dangerous (e.g., private plane navigation systems), and agonizingly frustrating (inaccurate mobile directions to your destination). Several at the forum indicated a complete shutdown is probably a lesser problem in these sorts of GPS applications than not knowing about location inaccuracies.

Finally, a primary objective of the meeting, emphasized both at the beginning and conclusion of the forum, was to raise the general level of awareness of the threat form solar storms.

Related links:

Do solar storms threaten life as we know it?

Space weather: Are we ready for a solar strike?

Understanding space weather forecasts and the risk of solar storms

Solar Flare 2011: Aurora alert \

Power Blackout Risks: Risk Management Options


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Don’t be ‘that’ sports parent | On Parenting
Miss Manners: The technology's changed, but the rules are the same
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Play Videos
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
Kids share best advice from mom
Using Fitbit to help kids lose weight
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
Transgender swimmer now on Harvard men's team
Portland's most important meal of the day
Play Videos
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
How much can one woman eat?
The signature drink of New Orleans