WASHINGTON – Scientists around the globe are joining those in the United States 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."
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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 solar flare.
"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.
Given 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.
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Right now, scientists are relying on an ageing satellite called ACE – Advanced Composition Explorer which provides the 15 minutes heads-up.
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The 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.
But scientists are worried the ACE satellite could fail, and replacement, called Discover, isn't expected to be launched by NASA until 2014.
Europe's 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 possible.
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.
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According 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.
Since 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.
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Indeed, 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.
An 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 Sciences.
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.
An 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 said.
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 recovery effort.
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 intense cycle.
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.
In 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.
Also affected 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 zone.
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," NOAA said.
If alerted in time to a geomagnetic storm, navigators can switch to alternative or backup navigation systems. .
Space weather 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.
Space weather forecasting becomes more important for scientific satellites whose instruments are far more sensitive to space environment than communications satellites.
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.
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 grids.
"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 be."
GPS in trouble
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.
GPS receivers also help users to determine time within 100 billionths of a second without the cost of owning and operating atomic clocks.
"This capability can be of enormous value to firms that need to synchronize their network computers or instruments," the NAS study said.
GPS 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.
In place today is the International Global Navigation Satellite System, in which some 200 agencies worldwide pool resources due to the precision of GNSS products.
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.
During 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
Baker, 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 electric power.
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.
"Collateral 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
"The 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.
"As 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.
The 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 Avenue.
"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."
The ensuing 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.
If 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 out again.
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 devastating.
"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 exhausted.
Virtually all of the various infrastructures and services would be dependent on electric power which could be affected by space weather.
"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.
"As 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 electric power."
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.
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.
"To understand 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.
"As 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 fuel resupply.
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.
Unless 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.