Solar Storm Researchers: Prepare For the ‘Big One’

April 13, 2016

The specter of a geomagnetic solar storm with the ferocity to disrupt communications satellites, knock out GPS systems, shut down air travel and quench lights, computers and telephones in millions of homes for days, months or even years has yet to grip the public as a panic-inducing possibility.

But it is a scenario that space scientists, global insurance corporations and government agencies from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to NASA to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) take seriously, calling it a “low probability but high-impact event” that merits a substantial push on several fronts: research, forecasting and mitigation strategy.

Space Weather Experts Gather
At a recent conference in Washington, D.C. that drew space weather specialists from academia, the federal government, the military and private industry, Louis Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, summed up the implications of a massive, well-timed solar storm for today’s technology-based, hyper-connected global society:

“Since the development of the electrical telegraph in the 1840s, space weather processes have affected the design, implementation and operation of many engineered systems, at first on Earth and now in space,” noted Lanzerotti, a panelist at the conference. “As the complexity of such systems increases, as new technologies are invented and deployed, and as humans have ventured beyond Earth’s surface, both human-built systems and humans themselves become more susceptible to the effects of Earth’s space environment.”

In addition to disrupting communications and energy grids, what is broadly known as space weather – powerful bursts of electromagnetic radiation, energetic charged particles and magnetized plasma – has the potential to corrode water and sewer pipelines, to erase historical data stored in computer memory, to undermine military and security operations and to harm astronauts traveling in space.

The symposium, “Space Weather Science and Applications: Research for Today, Training for Tomorrow,” sponsored by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, focused on the growing urgency for both basic scientific research and the development of practical applications in the field.

“Once systems start to fail, (the outages) could cascade in ways we can’t even conceive,” said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder and also a panelist, who recommends increasing support for the development of engineering systems and devices capable of protecting Earth’s infrastructure.

Trillion Dollar Recovery

In a 2013 report, Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, put the population at risk of a massive storm at “between 20-40 million with durations up to 1-2 years,” depending “largely on the availability of spare replacement transformers.” The cost of such a recovery would range between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion.

The symposium followed on the heels of a conference late last year, “Space Weather: Understanding Potential Impacts and Building Resilience,” convened in Washington, D.C. under the auspices of the Executive Office of the President of the United States and also attended by scientists and engineers from academia and industry, as well as policymakers and elected officials. At that time, the OSTP laid out a multi-part action plan to address, as Lanzerotti put it, “civil societal issues related to all aspects of space weather.”

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