in becoming alarmed at the possibility of a plasma cloud from a solar
superstorm that could wipe out vast electronics networks, because they
say Earth would have only a notice of about 15 minutes.
U.S. space scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator and the National Aeronautic Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center have been expressing concern over what is fast becoming a “solar storm maximum.”
And the alarms now are going off globally, with expressions of concern from European Union interests, the European Space Agency
and Great Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, which is urging the
British Space Weather Board to help that nation prepare for a massive
“Our message is, don’t panic, but do prepare – a
solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it,”
said Professor Paul Cannon who chaired the Academy’s working group.
the intensity of the increasing flare spewing from the sun’s surface,
experts agree that scientists would have only 15 minutes of warning of
an intense solar flare – a huge plasma cloud of charged particles that
can become a nightmare to unguarded electronics on earth.
Read the documentation that’s sparking the worry about the EMP threat, in “A Nation Forsaken”.
Right now, scientists are relying on an ageing satellite called ACE – Advanced Composition Explorer which provides the 15 minutes heads-up.
concern has been rising as the sun continues spewing out new, massive
flares even as Earth moves closer into alignment with the gigantic sun
spots producing those flares.
This increased solar activity is
occurring as sun spots multiply on the sun’s surface during what is
expected to be its most active period, 2012-2013, in its 11-year cycle.
scientists are worried the ACE satellite could fail, and replacement,
called Discover, isn’t expected to be launched by NASA until 2014.
ability to monitor space weather is not comprehensive, so radiation
monitors and other devices are being added to as many satellites as
possible as scientists seek ways to monitor such threats as closely as
Europe has a number of ground-based measurement
systems, including magnetometers, neutron monitors, GPS receivers and
ionosondes. Some 20 European countries provide ground-based space
weather measurements, with France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom contributing to reports at the European Space Weather Portal website.
to Michael Hapgood, who heads the Space Environment at STFC Rutherford
Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, the infrastructure for the
European space weather community provides valuable information to the
space science and engineering community.
However, it also has a
number of weaknesses, he said, in which the programs are fragmented,
there is limited awareness among decision-makers who ultimately control
budgets, poor quality of programs are offered and some still regard
space weather as a part of astronomy.
To Hapgood, there also are
threats to developing useful information. Because of fragmentation of
the programs, it leads to piecemeal funding cuts. Space weather
products also compete with other areas of astronomy and many, he said,
view space between the planets as empty and therefore harmless.
satellites are integral to the infrastructure of the U.S., space
weather data becomes critically important to anticipate anomalies and
potential failures of the satellites. It also is the first step in
making the satellites more resistant to such space weather events.
numerous studies have shown a correlation of satellite anomalies with
space weather. Most anomalies have occurred during periods of space
storms. For example, anomalies experienced in 2003 occurred during the
October 2003 Halloween storms.
Richard Fisher, NASA heliophysicist, warns about the damages that solar flares, CME, EMP can cause to Earth.
example of space weather’s impact on satellites was the 1994 episode
with Telesat’s Anik E1. It was disabled for some seven hours due to
space weather-induced static electricity discharge damage to its control
electronics, according to a study by the U.S. National Academy of
The satellite provided communications for all of
Canada, underscoring the importance of the satellite. The Canadian press
was unable to deliver news to 100 newspapers and 450 radio stations.
hour after the Anik E1 recovered, Telesat’s Anik E2 blanked out.
Consequently, some 1,600 remote communities lost their television
coverage and data services. In addition, backup systems similarly were
damaged “making the U.S. $290 million satellite useless,” the NAS report
Some 100,000 home satellite dish owners had to manually
repoint their dishes to E1 and other satellites. The Anik 2 satellite
later was put back into operation following a $50 million, six-month
Especially intriguing is that this particular
anomaly didn’t occur during a CME-driven geomagnetic storm maximum. It
occurred during what the NAS study says are “periodic enhancements of
the magnetospheric energetic electron environment associated with
high-speed solar wind streams emanating from coronal holes” as a solar
cycle comes to an end.
In this regard, NASA believes that while
the sun will reach its most intense period this year and next in the
sun’s 11-year cycle, such magnetrospheric activities which could
continue to produce solar flares until 2020 as the sun exits the latest
Telesat’s Anik E1 and E2 failures occurred during
such an electron storm which had begun a week earlier as a high-speed
solar wind stream swept past Earth.
Continued satellite problems
associated with space weather can occur during this period with
particles heading for the magnetosphere through the merger of
interplanetary and terrestrial magnetic fields. They build up what the
NAS study refers to as a “magnetotail” until it is explosively released
in what is called magnetospheric substorms.
These substorms occur
during non-storm periods, inject energetic plasma into the inner
magnetosphere causing an electrical charge to build up on spacecraft
surfaces. The magnetosphere is the region of space above the atmosphere
that is under the direct influence of Earth’s magnetic field.
“The electrostatic discharge that occurs subsequently is one of the major causes of spacecraft anomalies,” the NAS study said.
Consequently, communications satellite functions are very dependent on what space weather is occurring at the time.
For example, satellites are especially essential in today’s technological world for communications and navigation.
communications, solar storms particularly affect ground-to-air,
ship-to-shore, amateur radio frequencies. Television and commercial
radio stations appear not to be not as affected. According to NOAA, high
frequency radio wave communications are most affected since their
frequency depends on reflection from the ionosphere to carry signals
over long distances.
The ionosphere is the region of the Earth’s
atmosphere that extends from 31 miles to 186 miles, or 50 to 300
kilometers, and is made up of multiple layers of electrically charged,
or ionized, atoms. During a storm, the ionosphere can become seriously
altered which affects the near Earth environment. What results are
ionospheric storms which can continue for at least a day or more
depending on the intensity of geomagnetic activity.
by solar activities and storms are search and rescue and early warning
systems such as over-the-horizon radars whose signals bounce off the
ionosphere to monitor the launch of aircraft and missiles from long
distances. During geomagnetic storms, radio clutter greatly affects
these systems, something which can be particularly critical in a war
Geomagnetic storms also affect navigation systems where
accuracy is essential. According to NOAA, accuracy of navigation systems
using very low frequency signals depends on knowing the altitude of the
ionosphere’s lower boundary. Aircraft and ships use these very low
frequencies to determine their positions.
“During solar events
and geomagnetic storms, the altitude of ionosphere’s lower boundary can
change rapidly, thus introducing errors of up to several kilometers,”
If alerted in time to a geomagnetic storm, navigators can switch to alternative or backup navigation systems. .
forecasting then becomes increasingly important to determine what
anomalies may affect the satellites and their functioning. As a result,
the knowledge of space weather will be very important in helping to
determine any repositioning and controlling of the satellite that needs
to take place.
forecasting becomes more important for scientific satellites whose
instruments are far more sensitive to space environment than
For that reason, such sensitive
instruments on a scientific satellite need to be placed in a safe mode
when adverse space weather conditions are projected.
To warn of potential damaging storms, NOAA is using an advanced solar storm detector called the Solar X-Ray Imager, or SXI. It provides space weather forecasters with real-time images of the sun’s explosive atmosphere.
turn, this helps scientists to issue timely warnings in an effort to
offset tens of billions of dollars in potentially harmful effects on
assets in space and on the ground.
According to NOAA, the SXI
telescope which was launched into space on the GOES-12 environmental
satellite enhances the ability to detect and forecast harmful solar
storms before reaching the Earth’s atmosphere.
The SXI takes a
full-disk image of the sun’s atmosphere once every minute. From the
images, NOAA and the Air Force monitor and forecast the sources of space
weather disturbances from the sun. In this way, scientists can forecast
disturbances to Earth’s space environment can destroy satellite
electronics, disrupt long-distance radio communications or surge power
“The SXI will detect and provide positions for 70 percent
more solar flares than current ground observations,” according to Ernest
Hilder of the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo. “By
knowing flare longitude, a forecast can be made that would be accurate
for window of about 12 hours. Without the solar longitude of a flare,
the time of maximum particle radiation cannot be accurately predicted
and can vary over a range of 100 hours.”
NOAA operates two
environmental satellites in geostationary orbit of 22,300 miles over the
equator. In addition to GOES-12 which was launched in 2001, NOAA also
operates GOES-10 which operates over the U.S. West Coast, the Pacific
Ocean and Hawaii.
“We live in a cyber cocoon enveloping the
Earth,” said Daniel Baker at the University of Colorado’s laboratory for
Atmospheric and Space Physics. “Imagine what the consequences might
In addition to communications satellites, Baker said
disruption also could adversely affect ground positioning systems, or
GPS, which is integral to aircraft, automobiles and even mobile phones.
GPS also is affected by severe ionospheric changes from geomagnetic
storms, thereby interfering with the radio wave transmissions from
satellites to the ground, ships, aircraft or other satellites A growing
industry, GPS was a $13 billion business in 2003 but is expected to
increase to some $1 trillion by 2017.
Read the documentation that’s sparking the worry about the EMP threat, in “A Nation Forsaken”.
receivers also help users to determine time within 100 billionths of a
second without the cost of owning and operating atomic clocks.
capability can be of enormous value to firms that need to synchronize
their network computers or instruments,” the NAS study said.
also is essential in tracking freight and could one day actually warn
drivers when their car is about to leave the roadway. GPS-based
applications also enable farmers to adopt precision agricultural methods
of planning field mapping, soil sampling, tractor guidance, crop
scouting and yield mapping, the NAS study said.
In addition to
everyday travelers, reliance on GPS products includes mapping agencies,
space agencies, research agencies and universities.
today is the International Global Navigation Satellite System, in which
some 200 agencies worldwide pool resources due to the precision of GNSS
To determine the reliance on these systems and the
effect of solar storms, GNSS stations are operated by more than 100
worldwide agencies. These civilian, dual frequency stations contribute
data to multiple data centers on a daily basis. Subsets contribute
information on an hourly or every on a quarter-hour basis.
the October 2003 geomagnetic storm, stations lost tracking capabilities
on some or all channels. It also affected the accuracy of the
international global systems.
“A brief or partial loss of
tracking because of space weather during a critical event could
certainly degrade applications with societal and economic impacts, such
as tsunami warning systems,” the NAS study warned.
Space weather vs. electric power
of the University of Colorado’s laboratory for Atmospheric and Space
Physics, said the highest risk from such solar storms will be to the
national electrical grid system. Baker, who is a co-author of a National
Research Council report on the risks from solar storms, said that
evidence stemming from space weather research reveals that over the past
two solar cycles, space weather has challenged the integrity of
Power surges from solar particles could blow out
huge transformers which take a long time to replace. This would
especially be the case if that replacement involved hundreds of giant
transformers that were destroyed all at once.
In spite of the
historical knowledge of these various storms over the years, NASA said
that the nation’s electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption
and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so in terms
of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring
long periods of time to restore.
The reason is that electric
power and more intricate and sophisticated electronics are the
cornerstone of a modern society. This technology is the basis on which
all other infrastructures and services depend.
effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example,
disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance
systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of
potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods
and medications because of lack of refrigeration,” the NASA report
warned. “The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time
in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and
have international impacts as well.”
According to NOAA,
geomagnetic storms not only affect electrical transmission equipment,
damage transformers and transmission lines but can leave entire grids
without power. In oil and gas pipelines, rapidly fluctuating geomagnetic
fields can induce currents into the pipelines. Once that occurs, flow
meters in the pipeline can transmit false flow information and can
dramatically increase corrosion of a pipeline.
With new, more
sophisticated technologies being used in more complicated systems, space
weather has become more important now than ever to be able to monitor,
predict and understand it.
Millions rely on it
millions who use satellite TV, phone and pager services, rely on highly
interconnected electric power grids, and those who use GPS to fly the
globe are looking for and willing to invest in reliable space weather
services,” NOAA said.
NOAA provides products and services to a
number of space weather consumers including commercial airlines,
components of the U.S. power grid infrastructure, the U.S. Department of
Transportation, Federal Aviation Agency, NASA human space flight
activities and satellite launch operations, U.S. Air Force, military
communications and intelligence operations and various other commercial
and public users.
Vulnerabilities in one part of a larger system
of dependent infrastructures inevitably will spread to other parts of
that system. The extent of these vulnerabilities has come to be known
only over the past 30 years, based on various episodes.
severe as some of these recent events have been, the historical record
reveals that space weather of even greater severity has occurred in the
past – e.g., the Carrington Event of 1859 and the great geomagnetic
storm of May 1921 – and suggests that such extreme events, though rare,
are likely to occur again sometime in the future,” the NASA report said.
May 1921 event refers to the New York Railroad Storm which NASA dubbed a
superstorm. According to various accounts, there was a storm that began
on May 13, 1921, on the sun with a sunspot that could be seen with the
naked eye through smoked glass.
The spot was 94,000 miles long
and 21,000 miles wide. The next day, it had reached the center of the
sun to unleash an earth-directed sun flare, which caused a three-degree
magnetic bearing change.
Considered to be one of the five worst
recorded events of solar storms, it disrupted communications traffic
from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. On May 15, it not only
disrupted but knocked out of operation the entire signal and switching
system of the New York Central Railroad below 125th street. This outage
then was followed by a fire in the control tower at 57th and Park
“No one had ever heard of such a thing having happened
during the course of an auroral display,” according to one account at
solarstorm.org. “The cause of the outage was later ascribed to ‘ground
current’ that had invaded the electrical system.”
fire destroyed the telegraph instrument and destroyed the switchboard.
It then proceeded to destroy the entire building.
The same storm
burned out a Swedish telephone station and interfered with telephone,
telegraph and cable traffic over most of Europe.
a storm with the intensity of the 1921 event were to occur today, NASA
said it would result in “large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130
million people and would expose more than 350 transformers to the risk
of permanent damage.”
In the last century, there also have been
other events such as the Feb. 11, 1958, solar storm which resulted in
nationwide radio blackouts. According to various reports, auroras were
visible in Boston, Seattle, Canada and Newfoundland. The storm
reportedly was so intense over Europe that newspaper reports at the time
said that there was concern for fires and the fear that war had broken
The next solar storm maximum which an increasing
number of scientists say would more than likely occur in 2013 or 2014
could be as massive as the 1859 Carrington Event but far more
“If it were to occur today,” the NAS report said,
“(the Carrington Event storm) could have profound societal and economic
consequences, with cascading effects throughout the complex and
interrelated infrastructures of modern society.”
The loss of
power and even backup power supplies would have a dramatic effect on
water, communication, banking and finance and other critical
infrastructure including government services.
“Loss of these
systems for a significant period of time in even one region of the
country could affect the entire nation and have international impacts,”
the NAS study said.
However, various experts zeroed in on effects
of long-term outage of electric power and the inability to restart an
electric generator without water on-site, supplies of which had been
Virtually all of the various infrastructures and
services would be dependent on electric power which could be affected by
“Electricity is not storable in form,” the NAS
study said. “Conversion from other agency sources, such as hydro, fossil
fuel and nuclear, is required and production of electrical energy needs
to be matched to current demand. It is transported via electric power
grids of the United States and Canada, requiring constant attention to many details to assure safe, reliable and secure operations.
the nation’s infrastructures and services increase in complexity and
interdependence over time, a major outage of any one infrastructure will
have an increasingly widespread impact,” the NAS study said. “For
example, the dependence of nearly all critical services on information
technology is ever increasing, and the flow of information is itself
dependent on communications infrastructure and a reliable supply of
While there are backup power supplies, in most
cases they operate only for limited periods. In turn, these systems need
to be kept separate in the event that a major or multiple solar storms
don’t shut down both locations simultaneously.
The NAS study has
warned that a loss of key infrastructure for any extended period of time
due to the cascading effects from a space weather storm could lead to a
lack of food, given low inventories, loss of basic transportation, the
inability to pump fuel and loss of refrigeration.
There also is
the prospect that command and control for emergency services also would
be lost and medical care systems would be seriously affected because of
the reliance of generators and their backups to maintain emergency
services. For medical devices used at home, they also would be seriously
affected by the loss of electricity.
In addition to the
infrastructures of transportation, medical and emergency services,
telecommunications, and the economic and financial system, access to
money in a bank would become problematic since electromagnetic effects
would impact something as simple as trying to get money from an ATM
machine, making it impossible to purchase emergency supplies.
experience from recent space weather events suggests a threatening
outcome for today’s infrastructure from historically large storms that
are yet to occur,” the NAS study said.
While the primary focus by
national security experts has been on an electromagnetic pulse attack
from an enemy’s high altitude nuclear explosion over the United States,
there is the increasing prospect that natural phenomena can equally be
disruptive to a modern society.
“The technical infrastructure,
enabling technologies, and space-based assets of the country are
constantly changing,” the NAS report said. “New electronic devices, new
navigation systems, and new power grid systems are all evolving in
response to improved technologies and increased requirements for
efficiency and capability.”
New information and models reveal the
impact from solar storms and the disruption and potential destruction
they can cause to critical infrastructures such as banking, energy,
transportation, communications, food, water and emergency services on
which the U.S. economy greatly depends.
The potential for such a
catastrophe has increased over the years as infrastructures and services
have increased in complexity and interdependence.
the full potential impacts of a severe space weather event requires
understanding not just direct impacts – e.g., disruption to electric
power grids – but also the indirect impacts – e.g. how loss of electric
power may affect delivery of other services in computing,
transportation, health care, and so on,” the NAS report said.
the loss of core systems leads to failure in other, dependent systems, a
cascade of system failure can result…the potential for a severe space
weather event to set off a cascade of failures in critical systems has
implications for national security.”
For example, the
vulnerability of the power grid in a solar storm maximum, while a
low-frequency-of-occurrence event, can have the potential for
long-duration catastrophic impact on the grid and users, especially
since electronics incorporated into various systems have become more
intricate and complex.
The impact would be felt on interdependent
infrastructures. For example, potable water distribution, perishable
foods and medications would be affected or lost in the first 12 to
24-hour period. There would be the immediate or eventual loss of heating
or air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation and
Any major outage of any one infrastructure will
have that cascading effect on other critical infrastructures that will
only increase the destructive capabilities of geomagnetic storms which
are expected over the next two years.
In terms of economic and
societal costs attributable to the effects of geomagnetic storms,
experts envision more than 300 large transformers could be at risk
either by failing or sustaining permanent damage requiring replacement.
Taking into account such disasters as the August 14, 2003 Northeast
blackout which cost some $10 billion and Hurricane Katrina costing some
$125 billion, the price tag for a future severe geomagnetic storm could
amount to some $2 trillion in the first year and, depending on damage,
could take up to 10 years to recover.
the nation is adequately protected, the sheer impact alone from such
anticipated solar storms will result in the loss of critical U.S.
electrical infrastructures that could send the country back into an
early 19th century agrarian society. Back then, such an event would have
had no effect, since there was no electricity and most people had farms
and grew their own food.
Experts have warned that such a major
solar storm occurrence actually could be worse than back in the 19th
century due to the considerable increase in population and the total
reliance by society on electricity and technology for life-sustaining
needs. Besides all that, most people today don’t grow their own food.
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