Here's What the White House is Doing About the Threat of a Catastrophic Solar Flare

Tuesday, 03 November 2015 - 5:52PM
Space
Earth
Sun
Tuesday, 03 November 2015 - 5:52PM
Here's What the White House is Doing About the Threat of a Catastrophic Solar Flare
The Sun is the most important source of life-giving energy in our entire solar system, but it also happens to be a giant bubbling ball of super hot plasma that is capable of killing us all. A bit dramatic? Yes. But the Sun does pose a major threat to our planet, and the White House has started taking note.

The Sun regularly produces coronal mass ejections (CME), which are magnetically charged blasts of plasma with varying degrees of intensity. Those blasts also make regular contact with Earth, and when they do they can interfere with crucial parts of infrastructure including electricity networks and communications satellites. While a CME powerful enough to cause major disruption hasn't connected with Earth in some time, the White House has recently started to address the very real possibility that we could get hit by a major solar storm at any point. In fact, the Government is so concerned about the impact such an event could have on the nation, they've drawn up a major multi-agency plan to deal with such an eventuality.



Opening quote
"The plan was motivated by a recognition that we need a cohesive national network to build resilience [to space weather] and to determine what we need to know," said Bill Murtagh of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. "This is a real and present danger, this is a real threat."
Closing quote

Co-chaired by NOAA and the Department of Homeland Security, The National Space Weather Action Plan seeks to create benchmarks for these space weather events to help enhance agency understanding of its effects, therefore better enabling agencies to react to potentially catastrophic events.

Opening quote
"We have to understand how big these storms can be," added Murtagh. "We have to define those numbers and present them to industry and those trying to protect assets so they know what to protect against."
Closing quote

That protection would likely focus on the nation's power grid, which when exposed to a strong CME could see transformers gradually overheat and fail. The problem comes in replacing those transformers as quickly as possible. At present there does not exist a huge stock of these key parts of our power grid, nor are they particularly easy to make. That means that if such an event were to hit us now, vast swathes of the nation could find themselves without power for weeks instead of days.

In 1989, a significant geomagnetic storm landed a direct hit on Earth, knocking out power grids across Quebec in Canada causing an almost Province-wide blackout that lasted for over 9 hours. But many agree that the 1989 event was a mere taste of what the Sun is capable of firing our way. The 1859 Carrington event was the first and largest ever recorded solar storm, and it was reported to have been so strong that it set telegraph wires on fire and shocked those who were working on them at the time.

Were an event of a magnitude similar to that of Carrington to hit Earth now, it's widely agreed that the disruption to Earth's infrastructure would be significant. In fact, this threat is so severe that a key part of the National Space Weather Action Plan is to charge government agencies such as NASA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Homeland Security with incorporating the threat of solar storms into the nation's wider Strategic National Risk Assessment.

Why is the Department of Commerce involved, you ask? Well, The National Academy of Sciences has previously reported that the fallout from a Carrington-sized event could cause a $2 trillion hit on the economy. A few months after the 1989 solar storm, another blast impacted computing systems leading to the temporary halt of trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and it's these such eventualities that the DOC will need to be prepared for in the future. But more so, this multi-agency approach represents the need for agencies like NASA to educate all facets of the Government, because at present there is a worrying lack of preparedness and understanding.

In truth, nobody really knows what a major solar storm could do to our current infrastructure. It could be as minimal as a loss of cell service or as catastrophic as power outages causing widespread rioting and chaos in urban areas. During this time, the nation could find its defense systems weakened by network outages and millions of lives put at risk from a multitude of factors. It's these unknowns that the White House's new plan looks to remove.

NASA has previously stated that the chance of Earth getting hit by such a catastrophic solar storm is approximately 12%, which might not sound like much, but when you consider the potential chaos it could cause, is more than enough to warrant caution. In fact, a Carrington-sized storm actually came dangerously close to connecting with Earth back in 2012, and just last year Physicist Daniel Baker said "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces."

For more details on the plan click here.
Science
NASA
Space
Earth
Sun

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