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Space weather: Rarely discussed, but it could paralyze the world

On Oct. 14, President Obama issued an executive order putting into motion plans for the nation to develop contingency plans to deal with potentially paralyzing  impacts from a future extreme space weather event.

Space weather is a catch-all phrase that includes solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun, along with less potent ongoing cosmic rays and other background phenomena.

Extreme space weather events have happened in the past and will happen in the future. The extremes occur at very irregular and largely unpredictable intervals. The earth’s magnetic field deflects most of the charged particles from flares and CMEs most of the time, but the rare, truly powerful events could take out much of our electrical grid, knock out many satellites, stop GPS, and set us back at least a century technologically until repairs could be made to the grid.

There is good scientific historical evidence that an event in 1859, which took out fledgling telegraph networks, would almost certainly be a massive disaster if it occurred today. When it happened, some telegraph operators were literally shocked, and some fires erupted in their telegraph offices.

There is simply no shielding in place to adequately protect our infrastructure for a CME of that magnitude. It is estimated the damage could exceed $1 trillion and take years to repair. Astronauts would be exposed to dangerous radiation, and air travel would have to be curtailed near the time of the impact. Exposure on the earth would be greater at higher altitudes in general.

Because these solar flares and CMEs send these charged particles out at enormous speeds, predicting and readying for impacts from them is really a “short fuse” matter. That is, we don’t get weeks and months to prepare. Of flares and CMEs, the CMEs give us a little more time to prepare because the charged particles travel more slowly, in a range from 12 to almost 2,000 miles per second. From that speed, we may get a two- to three-day warning. Solar flares are a shorter fuse; just one to two days. How much of an impact also depends on the trajectory of the flare and CMEs' charged particles, and how directly the Earth is targeted. The majority of flares and CMEs either miss the earth or just give us a glancing blow.

For now, detection is our main tool to hopefully give us a chance to mitigate effects.

NOAA’s National Weather Service operates the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., to monitor solar activity. Solar physicists are growing in their ability to predict solar flares and CMEs by observing solar activity 24/7. Detection tools have been deployed farther out in space as a distant early warning system. The most recent was the 2015 NOAA/Space-X launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, stationed 1 million miles out. It acts as something of a space buoy, picking up on the arrival of high-volume charged particles, and it can afford us 15 to 60 minutes' lead time of a measured extreme approaching event. But it is far from a complete warning network.

So, what can be done with that short-fuse lead time, and what can we do to better prepare ourselves in the longer term? As of now, the best we can hope for is a few hours warning with only about 50 percent warning accuracy in order that utilities shut down as many transformers as possible. That kind of mass, done-on-purpose shut down might save a good part of the electrical infrastructure, but the shutdown itself would cost billions in its repercussions.

If warnings are not issued, or if utilities don’t act, a longer-term shutdown of the grid from damage would cripple our water supply after backup generators could no longer be kept running. Our ability to keep food supplies moving would fail, and nuclear plants would be in jeopardy when cooling systems eventually shut down. Refineries would shut down as well.

I’m just scratching the surface in mentioning destructive impacts. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences projected a worst-case scenario of the ultimate event requiring a four- to 10-year repair span at a cost of $1 trillion to $2 trillion. Of course, such a cataclysmic solar storm would also result in considerable loss of life from starvation and disease.

On Oct. 20, the University of Michigan and Rice University jointly announced the first regional solar storm model, which could aid in what parts of the globe would receive the most energized particles and which utilities would be in the greatest jeopardy. That might reduce the risk of false alarms in the warning process.

As for shielding and modernization of our electrical infrastructure, that is years and many billions of dollars off under the most optimistic of circumstances. The risk of not moving forward with these investments is frightening to contemplate because the likelihood of such a destructive solar storm may be low frequency (like a 100-year-flood), but it is NOT low probability. The president’s executive order is a long overdue important step toward a beginning to face these great tasks. Most unpredictable of all is whether our political apparatus and the utilities will begin to respond to this threat in a meaningful way.

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