Space weather is getting renewed interest just days after US President Barack Obama signed a new Executive Order for “Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events.” With solar storms capable of knocking out critical infrastructure in the United States and the world, President Obama’s new order brings awareness and the desire to create an action plan for such an event.
“Extreme space weather events — those that could significantly degrade critical infrastructure — could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, and transportation,” the order states. “Space weather has the potential to simultaneously affect and disrupt health and safety across entire continents.”
Just 4 years ago, the Earth was nearly hit by a significant solar storm that could have taken out the power grid, according to NASA scientists. A more noteworthy event impacted the globe in 1859; known as the “Carrington Event”, that solar storm smashed into Earth rendering telegraph machines useless while also triggering bright aurora borealis displays as far south as the Caribbean. Technology today is far more sophisticated than the telegraph machines of yesterday, and a comparable impact of a new solar storm could take out most machines, computers, cars, trucks, airplanes, boats, and more.
According to the President’s Executive Order, “It is the policy of the United States to prepare for space weather events to minimize the extent of economic loss and human hardship. The Federal Government must have (1) the capability to predict and detect a space weather event, (2) the plans and programs necessary to alert the public and private sectors to enable mitigating actions for an impending space weather event, (3) the protection and mitigation plans, protocols, and standards required to reduce risks to critical infrastructure prior to and during a credible threat, and (4) the ability to respond to and recover from the effects of space weather. Executive departments and agencies (agencies) must coordinate their efforts to prepare for the effects of space weather events.”
Currently, space weather is monitored by the Space Weather Prediction Center, a sister unit to the National Weather Service under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A unit within NASA at the NASA Goddard facility also monitors space weather, although their primary concern is to life and equipment in space that could be impacted by such storms. Both the NOAA and NASA units do interact with each other to make sure the other is aware of space weather systems that could have impacts on and around Earth.
Solar storms are a variety of eruptions of mass and energy from the solar surface. Flares, prominences, sunspots, coronal mass ejections are the common forewarners of solar activity; they all involve sudden releases of stored magnetic energy, which accelerates the hot gases near the surface or in the corona of the Sun. Sometimes these particles make it all the way to the Earth and beyond by flowing along the Sun’s magnetic field into interplanetary space. When the material collides with the Earth’s magnetic field and trapped radiation belts, it can dump particles into our upper atmosphere to cause the Aurora. The same ‘charged’ particles can produce their own magnetic fields which can modify the Earth’s magnetic field and even affect compass readings. The changing magnetic fields can also ‘induce’ electricity in long pipelines, or produce electrical surges in power grids leading to brown outs and black outs. Significant impulses in magnetic fields could damage or destroy anything that runs on electricity.
The full text of the President’s Executive Order is available here.