The following is an opinion piece written by Antonio J. Busalacchi, president, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
We often associate natural disasters with major atmospheric or geologic events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. Storms that originate on the Sun, however, pose an even larger global threat - one that requires attention from decision makers.
Our technologically driven society is dangerously vulnerable to powerful solar eruptions that spew millions of tons of charged matter toward Earth. They buffet the outer atmosphere and disrupt Earth’s magnetic field in ways that can scramble satellite operations, distort GPS signals, knock out radio communications and power networks, and expose astronauts and airplane passengers to higher-than-normal amounts of radiation.
Significant space weather events that occur every decade or so have widespread and destructive consequences. For example, a major solar storm in 1989 cut off power to millions of Canadians, and a series of powerful storms in 2003 led to malfunctions on more than 40 satellites. Just last September, solar flares caused radio blackouts for hours during critical hurricane emergency response efforts in the Caribbean and nearby regions.
Scientists warn that an exceptional solar storm can lead to truly catastrophic consequences. For example, the so-called Carrington Event of 1859, the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, was little more than a curiosity at the time, with telegraph machines emitting sparks and northern lights reaching as far south as Cuba. Such a storm today, however, could grind everyday life to a halt, leaving wide swathes of the world in the dark, knocking out cellular networks, and even interfering with routine credit card transactions that rely on satellite communications.
Such an event could result in more than $40 billion in damage to the United States every day for weeks, or even months, because of extensive damage to power grids, as well as communication networks and other technologies. Total losses could reach $2 trillion, or 10 times the costs of Hurricane Katrina.
Those estimates, although staggering, are just for the United States. Globally, the impacts could be far more extensive, especially in emerging markets that have widespread electric grids and electronic communications that rely on outdates and potentially vulnerable equipment.
Is such an event likely to occur any time soon? A 2016 statistical analysis concluded that the probability of an extreme solar event in the next 10 years may be as high as 10%, or more than double the probability of a magnitude 8 earthquake in California.
Despite the growing risks and an array of satellites that monitor the Sun, forecasters cannot accurately predict when a storm will erupt from the Sun and start heading on a one- to four-day journey toward Earth. Even then, observations provide only limited information about where the storm will hit and how strong it will be until it is about a half-hour away. This very short timeframe is not sufficient for satellite operators and utility managers to fully shield vulnerable electronics and power down critical hardware.
A necessary ingredient to improve our forecast capability requires a new generation of space- and ground-based instruments that can provide continual measurements of magnetic fields throughout the solar atmosphere. Such measurements would tell us when conditions are conducive for storms and help us determine whether the storm will penetrate our atmosphere and target particular regions on Earth, or glance off.
These observations need to be closely related to more advanced computer modeling capabilities, which would predict the buildup of energy in twisted magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere before they erupt and spew tons of charged particles in our direction.
It is encouraging to see US officials beginning to address this threat. The White House in 2015 unveiled a National Space Weather Action Plan that directed federal agencies to prepare for a major space weather event. Now Congress is considering legislation, known as the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, that would support new technologies to detect a solar storm before it erupts from the Sun, potentially leading to warnings being issued well before Earth is impacted.
Our solar forecasting capabilities are comparable to terrestrial weather prediction before the Second World War, when we had little forewarning of when or where an incoming storm would hit. Since then, government agencies, private companies, and university researchers have collaborated on landmark advances in weather prediction that have protected life and property and fostered economic growth.
In much the same way, we are at a pivotal moment with solar storms. Investing in space weather prediction would protect the invaluable technologies that our society depends on, with the returns far exceeding the costs. We will all reap the benefits.
— Antonio J. Busalacchi, president, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, is a nonprofit consortium of 117 North American member colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related Earth system sciences. It manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation.