The White House has released comprehensive contingency plans to guide preparation and response to catastrophic solar flares and other space weather events that could knock out power grids and cause power outages across the world for months and bring global civilization as we know it to a standstill.
Taking cognizance of the estimation by experts that there is a significant chance of the Earth sustaining a direct hit by a massive geomagnetic solar storm by 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released, on October 28, the National Space Weather Action Plan and the National Space Weather Strategy to be implemented in concert with other government agencies in preparing for a geomagnetic solar storm worst-case scenario.
The push for a space weather action plan and strategy gained strength after a massive solar flare narrowly missed Earth in 2012.
Although they are rare events, disruptive natural space weather events, such as solar flares and solar coronal mass ejections (CMEs), have been recognized for decades as potential sources of threat to modern-day technology-driven society and economy.
Solar flares are sudden bursts of solar radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum that occur when magnetic energy that has built up in the Sun is released suddenly. Solar flares are sometimes accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are massive bursts of magnetic field and plasma arising from the solar corona.
Solar flares and CMEs release powerful blasts of radiation and particles into the solar wind, and could cause damage to electrical grids and communication systems if they hit Earth directly.
A massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) released from a solar flare could have a devastatingly disruptive impact on 21st century technology-driven modern society and economy. It could disrupt power grids and cause power outages that could last for months. It could also disrupt GPS, satellite communication, and high frequency radio communication facilities that support the global transport system, and shut down cell phones, credit cards, and internet facilities.
According to a statement by OSTP, “Our Nation’s security, economic vitality, and daily functioning depend on the reliable operations of satellites and aircraft, communications networks, navigation systems, and the electric power grid. Efforts will facilitate the integration of space-weather considerations into planning and decision-making at all levels, ensuring that the United States is appropriately prepared for and resilient to future space-weather events.”
We can project the massive disruption that a major disruptive space weather event could cause from the last major geomagnetic solar storm that hit earth in 1859, the so-called Carrington event.
The event caused combustion of telegraph lines and widespread power failure in North America and Europe. And since 1859, the global economy has become even more dependent on the power grid, communications, and navigation systems. Thus, the effects of a solar flare would be far more devastating today than in 1859.
A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that a major geomagnetic storm that knocks out power grids could cost the U.S. economy $2.6 trillion.
Space weather consultant John Kappenman told Gizmodo, “Frankly, this could be one of the most severe natural disasters that the country, and major portions of the world, could face.”
According to John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Space weather is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has the potential to cause substantial detrimental effects on the Nation’s economic and social well-being.”
The six-step space weather action plan and strategy to prepare the United States for unforeseen disruptive space weather event is analogous to contingency plans already in place to respond to natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and wild fires.
The action plan proposes studies on the possible impact of space weather events on critical national infrastructure as necessary prerequisite to implementing effective response. It proposes establishing and updating benchmarks and standards to assess and measure threat, replace and upgrade systems — such as satellite assets in space and technologies on ground — used for forecasting and monitoring space weather.
Early warning and forecast capabilities are vital because forecasters have only about 15-60 minutes warning before the solar event.
The contingency plan involves implementing measures to protect electric grids in case of unexpected and unusual space weather events and replacement of Extra High Voltage (EHV) transformers destroyed by space weather events.
The action plan will involve schools, government agencies, the media, private sector, non-profit organizations, and insurance industry. The plan also considers proposal for the U.S. government to coordinate its preparation and response with other countries.
The plan advises private individuals to prepare by keeping emergency kits with fresh water, food, and medication sufficient to last at least 72 hours.
[Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Wikimedia]