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WASHINGTON – There is growing concern that major budget cuts and significant work-force reductions will mean states may not be prepared to meet looming emergencies – such as a massive solar storm that could shut down power, energy, food and communications.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has issued warnings that this year and next will be the peak of the sun’s 11-year cycle in which a direct hit on earth from a solar flare could cause catastrophic damage to the electrical grid and all unprotected electronic components.
According to NASA, the effect of such an event could cost up to $2 trillion in the first year, affect some 160 million people – or over half of the nation’s population – and take anywhere from four to 10 years to recover.
Critically, emergency communications of first responders could be jeopardized, hindering those teams’ ability to respond to calls for help from people who will need food and water supplies, among the basics.
Concern over the lack of preparedness came as the U.S. Congress failed to fully fund those states affected by Superstorm Sandy, which hit the Northeast. Many jurisdictions still are reeling from the damage.
The lack of full funding of the originally requested $60 billion to Congress for Sandy-related damage may be indicative of the increasing inability of even the federal government to respond to emergencies on any large scale
In addition, Congress and the nation’s utilities have been at loggerheads about whether to harden the grid system and electronic components, a move that would help save some operations as emergency responders react to a massive EMP event.
Such concerns are being raised anew, since scientists say that a solar storm maximum expected this year and next may represent a “Perfect Storm.”
Scientists say the solar activity during this coming period could be 50 percent greater in intensity than the sun’s previous cycle 11 years ago. In fact, scientists say that their modeling suggests that simulations of sun cycles show intensity out to 2020.
“We’re entering solar cycle 24,” according to Univeristy of New Hampshire scientist Jimmy Raeder in forecasting what he has described as an upcoming Perfect Storm.
“For reasons not fully understood, CMEs in even-numbered solar cycles – like cycle 24 – tend to hit Earth with a leading edge that is magnetized north,” he said. “Such a CME should open a breach and load the magnetosphere with plasma just before the storm gets under way. It’s the perfect sequence for a really big event.”
The CME to which Raeder referred is a coronal mass ejection, a massive burst of solar wind, also referred to as a solar flare. Cycle 24 is the period of 2013-2014 during which the sun is expected to reach its most intense period called a solar storm maximum, although scientists say that effects would stretch out to 2020.
In a period of a solar storm maximum, as is expected this year and next, Raeder said the CME is slower moving, gathering billions of tons of charged particles that would take days to reach the Earth’s atmosphere.
Those charged particles then interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to produce electromagnetic pulses of varying intensity, which could amount to trillions of watts of power, causing massive blackouts.
Once the solar storms come, they occur in three stages. However, not all of the stages occur in any given solar storm.
The first stage is high-energy sunlight which is primarily X-rays and ultraviolent light. The sunlight ionizes the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing radio communications interference. The second stage would be a radiation storm which would primarily affect astronauts.
The third stage would be the CME.
Sunspots are dark areas on the sun’s surface that contain strong magnetic fields that are constantly shifting. According to NASA, a moderate-sized sunspot is about as large as the Earth and can come and go over a period of days or weeks.
Karen Fox of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said these CMEs are solar explosions that create electromagnetic fluctuations that in turn induce electric fluctuations at ground level that then blow out electrical transformers in power grids. The CME’s particles, she said, also collide with critical electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt those systems.
That alone will be a major calamity, since the satellites provide commercial communications and also are used by the military.
At present, there are some 600 commercial satellites and more than 270 military satellites. The commercial satellites alone are worth some $75 billion and produce more than $25 billion a year in revenue or some $250 billion over the life of these satellites, according to a 2008 study conducted jointly by NASA and the National Academy of Sciences.
Like commercial satellites, military satellites also are susceptible to solar storms in addition to an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear attack.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites, astronauts and aircraft carry highly advanced electronic components are susceptible to the energetic charged particles and plasmas present in space.
When a satellite travels through such an environment during a geomagnetic storm, the charged particles strike the spacecraft causing various portions of it to be differentially charged, leading to damage and possibly failure of the satellite’s electronic systems.
“Furthermore, as technology has allowed spacecraft components to become smaller, their miniaturized systems have become increasingly vulnerable to the more energetic solar particles, which can cause physical damage to microchips and change software commands in satellite-borne computers,” a NOAA report said.
To get an idea of the damaging effects of magnetic storms, NOAA said they can produce energy equivalents comparable to that released by the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
From coronal mass ejections shooting hundreds of thousands of miles into space to million-mile-per-hour winds blowing charged particles toward Earth, the impact of solar storms can knock out very expensive satellites on which a society depends, costing many more billions of dollars due to the systems that now depend on them.
The NASA/National academy of Sciences study pointed to examples of services derived from commercial communications satellites. Not only are those services enormous but they provide benefits well beyond their worth.
For example, these satellites provide to populations in remote areas the news, education, entertainment, including global cell phones, satellite-to-home television and radio and distance learning.
Satellites also store registers to regional distribution centers and provide automatic inventory control and pricing feedback for a major retailer. In addition major automakers use a satellite-based private communications network to update entire system of dealer sales, advice on new model features and provide service crews with the latest information on new car repair procedures.
In connecting businesses with their customers, satellites facilitate point-of-sale retail purchases made with credit or debit cards from convenience stores and gasoline stations to any business in which the credit or debit cards are used.
Satellites also act as a critical backup to land cable systems which are necessary to restore services during emergencies, such as earthquakes and hurricanes when land-based communications systems have been knocked out.
In addition, commercial satellites provide valuable information not only on meteorology, but include such areas as agriculture, oceanography, forestry, geology and environmental science, to name a few areas.
In addition to the use of commercial satellites, the military has its own which it uses for imagery, navigation, signals intelligence, telecommunications, early warning and meteorology.
Military satellites also are used for verifying compliance with arms control treaties and in support of military operations. The satellites are the primary focus for now on military space activities and it is the Department of Defense which is responsible for protecting those U.S. spaced-based systems.
Consequently, DOD is a major user and supplier of space weather information in terms of situational awareness and forecasting and must therefore ensure the quality of its space weather systems capabilities.
Within DOD, the United States Air Force is the lead organization for space weather activities. USAF uses a variety of space-based satellites operated by the Defense Meteorological Satellites Program, the Defense Support Program and the Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System, among others.
The Global Positioning System network provides data on the total electron content of the ionosphere. There also are ground-based measurements which the USAF uses such as the Improved Solar Optical Observing Network; Radio Solar Telescope Network; and the Next Generation Ionosonde.
These facilities operate 24 hours a day. To meet DOD customers’ need for space weather information, the USAF uses a combination of data from NOAA and its own sources.
Space weather in which the USAF is keenly interested affects its critical missions of communications, satellite operations, space tracking and navigation. For that reason, the Air Force will want to keep a close watch on electron content in the ionosphere, the disturbance levels of the ionosphere, energetic particles, radiation and magnetic disturbances.
In analyzing and assessing space weather information, the Air Force from a security standpoint also needs to be in a position to distinguish between natural and man-made challenges to technologies and systems. It needs to determine whether disturbances are due to hardware and software failures, space weather effects or direct attacks on their monitoring systems.
In anticipation of the upcoming solar storm maximum, DOD is seeking to perfect its sensor monitoring mechanisms on its space-based satellites. It especially will increase assets to observe ionospheric weather using resources from the National Science Foundation, NOAA and other international partners.
Despite efforts to obtain better warning systems to meet national weather emergencies, including potential massive solar storms, local jurisdictions will be increasingly hard-pressed to respond to them due to the lack of local funding, as well as what appears to be increased cutbacks in federal funding.
There is the high prospect, especially in the event of a solar storm maximum, that emergency responders will be unable to respond at all should the electrical grid be knocked out, affecting emergency communications to coordinate any emergency response to meet what could be massive regional chaos.