Monday, October 17, 2016

Executive Order: Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events

Solar Flare/CME - Credit NASA


In 2012 the earth narrowly missed being hit by a massive solar storm, one that - had it been earth-directed - could have caused extensive damage to our electrical grid and electronic infrastructure (see NASA: The Solar Super Storm Of 2012).

In 2014, NASA produced a 4-minute video on this close-call, along with a history of great solar storms and their probable effects on our modern infrastructure. 

If you haven't seen this video, I would highly recommend you do so now.  I'll wait. 

Solar flares the size of the 1859 `Carrington Event’ or the 2012 CME don't happen very often, and in order to affect earth, the flare or CME (coronal mass ejection) must be directed towards earth.

Still, in 1989 a geomagnetic storm fried several large power transformers in Quebec, causing a province-wide blackout.  And in 2003, a number of satellites were severely damaged by an extremely powerful CME they also caused some power outages in Europe.
Over the past couple of decades we’ve become increasingly dependent upon computers, the Internet, cell phones, electronic devices, and of course . . . the electrical grid.
So with each passing year our vulnerability to the effects of these storms increases. 

In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences produced a 134 page report on the potential damage that another major solar flare could cause in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. Among their conclusions:
These assessments indicate that severe geomagnetic storms pose the risk for long-term outages to major portions of the North American grid. While a severe storm is a low-probability event, it has the potential for long-duration catastrophic impacts to the power grid and its affected users. The impacts could persist for multiple years with a potential for significant societal impacts and with economic costs that could be measurable in the several trillion dollars per year range.

In 2013 Lloyds issued a risk assessment for the insurance industry called Solar storm Risk to the north American electric grid which calls another `Carrington’ class event inevitable, and the effects likely catastrophic, but the timing was unknowable.  Some of my other blogs on this threat include:
The UK’s Space Weather Preparedness Strategy
Solar Storms, CMEs & FEMA
NASA Braces For Solar Disruptions
FEMA takes these solar storms seriously, and in 2010 held a major table-top exercise in anticipation of the last solar maximum. According to a tweet from FEMA Director Craig Fugate back in 2011, they now include a solar weather update in their daily briefings.

A 30 page PDF file is available for download from the FEMA library on this exercise which envisioned a `near worst-case scenario’.
Managing Critical Disasters in the Transatlantic Domain - The Case of a Geomagnetic Storm
Almost a year ago, in USGS: Preparing The Nation For Severe Space Weather, we saw the OSTP (Office of Science & Technology Policy) warn of the risks of severe space weather. They released enhanced preparedness plans to deal with a direct hit by a major CME, which was published in a White House blog called Enhancing National Preparedness to Space-Weather Events.

Lest anyone thing this is all the stuff of sci-fi movies, last week the Office of the President released an Executive Order (excerpts below) directing the government to prepare for severe space weather.

Executive Order -- Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events

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By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and to prepare the Nation for space weather events, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. Space weather events, in the form of solar flares, solar energetic particles, and geomagnetic disturbances, occur regularly, some with measurable effects on critical infrastructure systems and technologies, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite operations and communication, aviation, and the electrical power grid. Extreme space weather events -- those that could significantly degrade critical infrastructure -- could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, and transportation. Space weather has the potential to simultaneously affect and disrupt health and safety across entire continents. Successfully preparing for space weather events is an all-of-nation endeavor that requires partnerships across governments, emergency managers, academia, the media, the insurance industry, non-profits, and the private sector.

It is the policy of the United States to prepare for space weather events to minimize the extent of economic loss and human hardship. The Federal Government must have (1) the capability to predict and detect a space weather event, (2) the plans and programs necessary to alert the public and private sectors to enable mitigating actions for an impending space weather event, (3) the protection and mitigation plans, protocols, and standards required to reduce risks to critical infrastructure prior to and during a credible threat, and (4) the ability to respond to and recover from the effects of space weather. Executive departments and agencies (agencies) must coordinate their efforts to prepare for the effects of space weather events.

Sec. 2. Objectives. This order defines agency roles and responsibilities and directs agencies to take specific actions to prepare the Nation for the hazardous effects of space weather. These activities are to be implemented in conjunction with those identified in the 2015 National Space Weather Action Plan (Action Plan) and any subsequent updates. Implementing this order and the Action Plan will require the Federal Government to work across agencies and to develop, as appropriate, enhanced and innovative partnerships with State, tribal, and local governments; academia; non-profits; the private sector; and international partners. These efforts will enhance national preparedness and speed the creation of a space-weather-ready Nation.
(Continue . . . )

This executive order sets initial goals and timelines, and you'll want to read it in its entirety.

While not specifically mentioned, preparing for severe space weather will also help prepare us in the event of an EMP attack - or a cyber attack - on our electrical grid.

Last month, in #NatlPrep: Revisiting The Lloyds Blackout Scenario we looked at some of the potential impacts of this triple-threat to our infrastructure, and some of the ways you and your family can be prepared.
As a general rule I promote `all threats preparedness' - rather than planning for a specific event - but prolonged power outages are so often a big part of a wide range of disasters that being ready for one makes sense.

While few of us can prepare for a multi-year power outage - that envisions an absolute worst case scenario - which isn't the only (or even most likely) outcome. 
A more reasonable goal for most families would be the ability to deal with 10 days to two weeks without power.  A not-unheard of time to restore power after a hurricane, blizzard, or earthquake.

So . . . if a disaster struck your region today, and the power went out, stores closed their doors, and water stopped flowing from your kitchen tap for the next 7 to 14 days  . . .  do you have: 
  • A battery operated NWS Emergency Radio to find out what was going on, and to get vital instructions from emergency officials?
  • A decent first-aid kit, so that you can treat injuries?
  • Enough non-perishable food and water on hand to feed and hydrate your family (including pets) for the duration?
  • A way to provide light (and in cold climates, heat) for your family without electricity?   And a way to cook?  And to do this safely?
  • A small supply of cash to use in case credit/debit machines are not working?
  • An emergency plan, including meeting places, emergency out-of-state contact numbers, a disaster buddy,  and in case you must evacuate, a bug-out bag?
  • Spare supply of essential prescription medicines that you or your family may need? 
If your answer is `no’, you have some work to do.  A good place to get started is by visiting

While preparedness may seem like a lot of work, it really isn’t.  You don’t need an underground bunker, an armory, or 2 years worth of dehydrated food.  But you do need the basics to carry on for a week or two, and a workable family (or business) emergency/disaster plan.
For more information on how to prepare, I would invite you  to visit:


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