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The U.S. Is Planning For a ‘Space Weather’ Event, You Know, Just in Case

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare — as seen in the bright flash in the lower right hand side of the Sun — on Sept. 28, 2015. (Image: NASA/SDO/ CC0 Public Domain)
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare — as seen in the bright flash in the lower right hand side of the Sun — on Sept. 28, 2015. (Image: NASA/SDO/ CC0 Public Domain)

The U.S. government is now planning for an extreme solar storm that they say could jeopardize the nation’s security. The strategy and multi-agency plan is an effort to prepare and coordinate responses to any “space weather” threat.

In the White House release, the two documents lay out the nation’s official plan for the impacts of solar flares and other types of space weather. The potential to wreak havoc on power grids and other key infrastructure here on Earth is a very real threat.

Bill Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), wrote in a statement: “The plan was motivated by a recognition that we need a cohesive national network to build resilience [to space weather] and to determine what we need to know.

‘This is a real and present danger; this is a real threat.’

According to Space.com: “The new ‘National Space Weather Strategy‘ outlines the basic framework the federal government will pursue to better understand, predict, and recover from space weather events, while the ‘National Space Weather Action Plan‘ details specific activities intended to help achieve this broad goal.”

Learn more about space weather and the aurora with a NASA.gov video:

Suzanne Spaulding, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, said in a discussion about the new documents: “The efforts undertaken to achieve the objectives of this strategy will establish a national approach to the security and resilience in the face of our improved understanding of the seriousness of the space weather risk, and the steps we must take to prepare for it.”

Many experts have said that it is a serious risk, the fact that a high-energy solar flare heading toward Earth could affect orbiting satellites, and could even pose a risk to the International Space Station, as well as the astronauts living on board.

Space weather explained, by NASA Goddard:

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are an even bigger concern; they are large eruptions that send solar plasma through space at millions of miles per hour. Any CMEs that make it to Earth would most likely start intense geomagnetic storms, temporarily disrupting power grids, radio communications, and satellite navigation.

John Holdren, OSTP Director, said in a live webcast: “In March 1989, a strong CME event had caused a blackout that left 6 million people in the Canadian province of Quebec without power for 9 hours.”

An even more powerful CME slammed into Earth in 1859, generating beautiful auroral displays as far south as the Caribbean and causing the failure of telegraph systems in both Europe and North America. If a geomagnetic storm as strong as that one — which is known as the Carrington Event — were to strike today in our much more technologically advanced society, it would likely cause $600 billion to $2.6 trillion worth of damage in the United States alone, according to Space.com.

Terry Boston, president and CEO of the electricity transmission organization PJM, said:

‘I’m not here saying the sky is falling, but it really is,

if you think of millions of metric tons of charged particles coming to the Earth. Geomagnetic disturbances from space are a clear and present threat to the [electricity] system.”

The National Space Weather Strategy is focusing on six main goals to reduce the threat:

  1. Establish benchmarks for space weather events: Effective and appropriate actions for spaceweather events require an understanding of the magnitude and frequency of such events. Benchmarks will help government and industry assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure, establish decision points and thresholds for action, understand risk, and provide points of reference to enable mitigation procedures and practices, and to enhance response and recovery planning.
  2. Enhance response and recovery capabilities: There is a need to develop comprehensive guidance to support and improve response and recovery capabilities to manage space weather events, including the capabilities of federal, state, and local governments, and of the private sector.
  3. Improve protection and mitigation efforts: Improvements to national preparedness for space weather events will require enhancing approaches to protection and mitigation. Protection focuses on developing capabilities and actions to secure the nation from the effects of space weather, including vulnerability reduction. Mitigation focuses on minimizing risks, addressing cascading effects, and enhancing disaster resilience.
  4. Improve assessment, modeling, and prediction of impacts on critical infrastructure: Timely, reliable, actionable, and relevant decision-support services during space weather events are essential to improving national preparedness. Societal effects must be understood to better inform the actions necessary during extreme events, and to encourage appropriate mitigation and protection measures before an incident.
  5. Improve space weather services through advancing understanding and forecasting: Opportunities exist to improve the fundamental understanding of space weather and increase the accuracy, reliability, and timeliness of space weather observations and forecasts (and related products and services). The underpinning science and observations will help drive advances in modeling capability, and improve the quality of space weather products and services. There is also a need to improve capacity to develop and transition the latest scientific and technological advances into space weather operations centers.
  6. Increase international cooperation: In a world of complex interdependencies, global engagement and a coordinated international response to space weather is needed. The United States must not only be an integral part of the global effort to prepare for space weather impacts, but must also help mobilize broad, global support for this effort by using existing agreements and building international support and policies.

Space weather expert Louis Lanzerotti, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said that the collaborative and multidisciplinary approach that the strategy and the action plan laid out will put the U.S. on the right path.

Lanzerotti said at the OSTP event: “I’m very impressed with this, and I think we have a strong start continuing forward in our country from the government, from academia, and [the] private sector.”

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