SOLAR FLARES, coronal mass ejections, solar particle events, solar wind — these aren’t terms that only science fiction characters and astronauts need worry about. Though Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protect humanity from a wide range of deadly space hazards, the safety blanket is not impermeable. The boisterous, volatile sun regularly throws off plasma, other particles and radiation that, with the right intensity and heading, could wreak havoc on modern society. In fact, extreme “space weather” recently came scarily close to slamming into Earth — and it has a shockingly high chance of knocking out power grids and doing other damage in the next 10 years, according to scientists’ best estimates.
That’s why it’s good the White House recently released a strategy to prepare for disastrous space weather. Now comes the hard part — putting time and money into the strategy. Congress and the private sector will need to pitch in.
A huge coronal mass ejection — a discharge of plasma from the sun’s corona — hit Earth in 1859, scrambling telegraph networks and even causing some telegraph stations to burn down. Nowadays, human society is far more dependent on all sorts of electronics, from the satellites in orbit to the power stations on the ground, that are vulnerable to interference from solar events. A relatively small solar discharge hit the planet in 1989, knocking out power to millions in Quebec. A much larger one nearly hit Earth in 2012. “We’ve dodged a lot of bullets,” says the University of Colorado’s Daniel Baker, a space weather expert.
A 2009 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that a head-on collision with a large-scale geomagnetic storm could do astounding amounts of damage, costing $2 trillion in the first year of recovery. Gas pipelines and drinking water pumps could be knocked out. Experts estimate that there is a 12 percent chance of such an event occurring within the next 10 years — in the same ballpark as a magnitude 8 earthquake striking the country.
Given the severity of the risk, the country is only in the rudimentary stages of preparing. The new White House strategy largely consists of getting various agencies, states, utilities and Congress on the same page. Under the plan, scientists would establish ways simply to describe the magnitude of solar events, emergency response organizations would consider space weather in their planning and communications would be enhanced. Utilities, meanwhile, should have a better sense of what infrastructure needs to be hardened and how to manage a major event.
Above all, improving space weather forecasting will be crucial. That starts with developing better prediction models. But it also requires sustained investment in ground and satellite-based sensors. With some warning, power companies and others could minimize the damage a major solar event would cause.
Congress has a record of inconstancy when it comes to funding satellite programs to study Earth and its surroundings. Space weather is just one important reason for lawmakers to guard against such shortsightedness.