Legislation introduced in the Senate last week is the best effort yet put forward by Congress to improve forecasts of an invisible yet potent threat: space weather.
The bipartisan bill, authored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), passed out of the Commerce Committee on Wednesday and will soon be brought to the Senate as a whole. It tackles the threats and challenges that space weather poses to our critical infrastructure, enumerating aspects that begin and the sun and end with the failure of critical systems.
Space weather can be thought of as this: huge eruptions of radiation and plasma from the surface of the sun that, if the eruption is headed toward Earth, can impact or bring down the electrical grid, radio communications, GPS and other satellite services, and increase radiation exposure for passengers on high-latitude flights. And they can last for days to weeks to months, depending on the strength of the invisible storm.
The problem is space weather forecasting is about as mature in 2016 as weather forecasting was in 1930.
“We need to have that same kind of sophistication when it comes to space weather because we are living in such an interconnected world,” said Peters, “and it will only get even more so.”
The expanse that is space weather is huge, which is why a bill like this is so important. If the sun is made to be the size of a basketball, then the Earth is the size of a BB, each set at opposite ends of a basketball court. Space weather forecasters sit on this BB, mindful of the enormous speed of solar storms. They try to predict if and when storms will arrive and how intense they will be when they get here. But they need more data, more research and more tools.
During a period of particularly tempestuous space weather in October 2003, an epic coronal mass ejection took just 19 hours to reach our planet. A space weather-monitoring satellite temporarily failed. Aircraft were diverted from the poles. Power outages were felt in Europe, and our astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to shelter in the most protected parts of the space craft because of the radiation blast.
Frighteningly, scientists speculate that a near-miss in July 2012 was moving even faster, on par with the historic “Carrington Event” of 1859. If that type of event happened in the 21st century, some suggest it would knock us back into the stone age. Power would be out. Cell phones and GPS would be dead. If left unprepared, electrical infrastructure over a large portion of the globe would go dark and could stay that way for weeks or months.
Carrington has been heralded as the “worst case scenario” for solar explosions — but the truth is we don’t yet know what’s possible.
This is what Peters is most concerned about. “Scientists tell me Carrington was a 150-year event,” he told the Washington Post — one of such intensity that on average it only happens once every 150 years. “A storm as bad as that would be a multi-trillion-dollar impact to industry. What would happen if we had a 1,000-year event?”
The bill asks NOAA go forward with a replacement to a satellite that is in its decline. The NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) spacecraft, at a fixed orbit between here and the sun one million miles away, is more than 20 years old but its mission continues to be critical.
The SoHO satellite carries observational instrument for prediction, called a white light coronagraph, which looks directly at the sun from our vantage point and watches for coronal mass ejections, which cause the worst space weather storms here on Earth. Forecasters use this information to create space weather forecasts — kind of like how hurricane models help forecasters predict landfall, and when.
There is no substitute for this data in the forecasting of the extreme events that have the potential to cause great harm. There must be a sentinel at SoHO’s current location watching at all times.
Beyond these observations, the bill calls for more research on determining which storms will be most extreme. That requires a better understanding of the embedded magnetic field in the ejection, an ability forecasters lack now.
And finally, the bill gets to the most practical and necessary links in the chain. No matter how good the forecasts, they must be understandable and actionable. User needs, metrics that scale the event and the likely impacts, and clear communications among government agencies are called out in the language in this legislation.
The timing of this bill is, paradoxically, near the low point of the solar cycle when eruptive storms are minimal. But we are far from safe from the perils of space weather. It’s a nod to its sponsors that the issue is not forgotten, especially in that we know that big events can occur at any point in the activity cycle.
Peters says this bill is a good start, but it’s just the beginning. “You need to have good science, better predictive capabilities and public trust that we know what we’re talking about when we say we need to take extreme action,” said Peters, like shutting down the power grid. “This bill is meant to be a first step toward that.”