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The devastating potential of an extreme solar storm and what the White House is doing about it

A solar flare captured by NASA in  April 2012.

Weather is not limited to the clouds, wind, extremes of heat and cold and precipitation systems that we experience on Earth.  The broiling surface of the sun generates its own weather, or space weather, frequently unleashing waves of plasma that bombard the Earth’s atmosphere.

A principal concern is the following: At some point in our lifetimes, the sun could unleash a dangerous surge of magnetically-charged plasma that could severely damage or destroy critically important electric power systems, satellites, spacecraft and telecommunications.

The White House, realizing that an extreme solar storm could jeopardize the nation’s vitality and security, released a strategy and multi-agency plan on Thursday to prepare for and coordinate responses to the space weather threat.

“The plan was motivated by a recognition that we need a cohesive national network to build resilience [to space weather] and to determine what we need to know,” said Bill Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  “This is a real and present danger, this is a real threat.”

The plan’s development, co-chaired by NOAA, the Department of Homeland Security and OSTP, was the work of members from seven Cabinet-level departments as well as 13 agencies and service branches.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the sun emitting a mid-level solar flare in 2014. (Video: Reuters)

Murtagh said the need for the plan arose over time as government officials as well as constituents from the electric power, telecommunications and emergency management sectors became increasingly aware of the risks posed by space weather.

Most solar storms are benign and occur regularly.  They manifest themselves in magnificent display of aurora at high latitudes. But extreme events, the kind scientists fear, are rare. Our current infrastructure hasn’t been tested by this class of storm, but scientists know they are possible, based on recent activity on the sun as well as the historic record.

In 2012, NASA said the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with Earth. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado told NASA two years after it happened.

[How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth]

NASA said a direct strike could’ve caused widespread power outages and other damaging effects. More troubling, it cited research which suggests that there is a 12 percent chance of something like this happening in the next decade.

The most severe documented solar storm to impact Earth, known as the Carrington Event, occurred in September 1859, well before today’s power grid and network of satellites existed.

During the Carrington event, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, according to historical accounts. The solar eruption “caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices,” NASA noted.

A National Academy of Sciences study in 2008 said a similar event happening today could produce a devastating economic impact exceeding $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.

A key component of the White House plan is to establish benchmarks for space weather events.  “They provide a point of reference from which to improve the understanding of space weather effects, develop more effective mitigation procedures, enhance response and recovery planning and understand risk,” the plan says.

Some recent studies have shown that there is historical evidence of the sun producing “superflares,” or flares 1,000 times larger than what has been observed in modern times.

[Scientists spot evidence for ‘superflares,’ blowing away anything we’ve ever seen]

“We have to understand how big these storms can be,” Murtagh said. “We have to define those numbers and present them to industry and those trying to protect assets so they know what to protect against.”

The plan also calls for an assessment of the vulnerability of our nation’s systems to these storms.  A critical question, which is not well understood, is how severely would an extreme solar storm impact the power grid?

The 2008 National Academy of Sciences report said power outages after an extreme solar storm could last months or longer, since transformers take a long time to replace. A report from North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) from 2012, on behalf of the industry, was not as dire, noting that geomagnetic storms are more likely to cause blackouts and short-term power loss rather than such sustained damage.

Murtagh explained that this kind of  assessment is a “huge undertaking” since so many factors affect the vulnerability at different points in the grid network, including physical location, underlying geology and the age of the equipment. Parts of the southern U.S. have no recent experience with a significant solar storm, so the impacts on power systems there are not well understood. “We want to do more of a deep dive to understand vulnerability across the nation,” Murtagh said.

One of the more frightening aspects of the space weather threat is that, based on currently available monitoring, forecasters would have little lead time ahead of an extreme event.

NOAA recently put in space the satellite DISCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory) which can measure the strength of potentially damaging solar winds, but with only 15 to 60 minutes of warning time.

[New satellite – DSCOVR – to monitor potentially damaging solar winds]

“A critical piece of the plan is to make sure we have an operational suite of instruments both on ground and in space to provide real-time measurements we need as a nation to support space weather for the nation,” Murtagh said.

Goal 5 of the plan supports improving space weather services through advancing understanding and forecasting, which includes not only exploring options to enhance the monitoring of these events, but also improving computer model simulations.

“We want to be sure we’re enabling research to improve modeling of these events so we can understand days in advance what that coronal mass ejection [plasma wave] leaving the sun might look like when it’s hitting Earth,” Murtagh said.

The plan also places an emphasis on increasing international cooperation, as the entire globe is vulnerable to these events and intergovernmental and bilateral efforts to address the threat are gaining momentum. “An important part of the strategy is working with friends around the world,” Murtagh said.

Joe Kunches, a retired lead forecaster from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and Capital Weather Gang’s space weather expert, said the plan represents a very positive step in improving the nation’s readiness for severe space weather.

“[The plan goes] a long way in dealing with the paradox of space weather; it affects individuals, but individuals cannot build a mitigation strategy alone,” Kunches said. “Government agencies must stand to lead the response.”

White House documents related to action plan

National Space Weather Strategy

Space Weather Action Plan

OSTP Fact Sheet: New Actions to Enhance National Space-Weather Preparedness