Most of us are familiar with the devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, and even droughts. But there is one natural phenomenon that could devastate our technology-driven society, and that is space weather.
We hear and read about electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). As a matter of fact, an intense solar flare disrupted low-frequency radio wave communications over South America and the Atlantic Ocean on September 28 this year.
And in October 2014, Digital Journal reported on an X-Class event, the most powerful kind of solar flare. Writer Mark J. Allen wrote, “Earth-bound CMEs can cause geomagnetic storms that can damage electrical equipment on orbiting satellites and radio equipment on Earth as well as affecting the precision of global positioning system (GPS) measurements.”
Space weather refers to the variations in the environment between the Earth and the sun, as well as the entire solar system. To be more specific, space weather describes solar flares, solar energetic particles, and coronal mass ejections that could impact orbiting planets, particularly Earth.
While we have been monitoring space weather for years, there is still much we need to learn. There are still gaps in our capacity to understand, model, predict, respond to, and recover from space-weather events, according to the White House. For this reason, the Obama administration released two documents, the National Space Weather Strategy and the National Space Weather Action Plan.
Space weather scientists are kept busy watching the sun
Space weather scientists with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA have warned for years that if a massive solar storm were to hit the earth, the effects would be beyond catastrophic. An EMP would take down electrical grids, quite possibly on a global scale, and it could last for months and months.
Think about this, no satellites, no telecommunications capabilities, no refrigeration, no airlines, no water and no food supply line. Why? Because almost everything we use or rely on is partially or fully dependent on electricity. It can be a frightening scenario to contemplate. “Frankly,” space weather consultant John Kappenman told Gizmodo last month, “this could be one of the most severe natural disasters that the country, and major portions of the world, could face.”
The White House bases contingency plan on the Carrington Event
Released on October 28, 2015, the White House plan involves the coordination of agencies from the federal level, state level, and including emergency managers, academia, the media, the insurance industry, nonprofit organizations and the private sector, all in preparation for the worst-case scenario possible, such as the Carrington Event that took place in 1859.
In 1859, a solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth’s magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. At that time, telegraph lines were exploding due to being electrified by the geomagnetic activity created by the flare. The event was named for the astronomer.
Based on the worst-case scenario, the plan’s varied activities will:
improve space weather prediction abilities, complete an all-hazards power outage response and recovery plan, assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to EMP, develop a real time-time infrastructure to report damage, help industry develop long-term reduction of EMP vulnerability and promote international collaboration to plan for a potentially global catastrophe.
The most dangerous aspect of solar storms is their ability to impact us on a global scale. This makes this natural phenomenon unique above all others. This is why international cooperation will be needed in developing a worldwide plan that all players will agree to in order to facilitate aid on a global scale.
To read the White House plan in its entirety, click here.
Visit the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center for a further explanation of space weather and what goes on behind the scenes.