Monday, May 29, 2017

USGS: Preparing The Nation For Severe Space Weather


Although there were few visible effects beyond some spectacular aurora sightings as far south as Arizona, Colorado, and Tennessee - over the weekend the earth took a a glancing blow from a small CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) from the sun.

The resultant G3 geomagnetic storm (see chart above) sparked the auroras, and likely caused some minor electrical and communications disruptions, particularly in the higher latitudes. NOAA describes the effects of a G3 storm as:
G 3     Strong
Power systems: Voltage corrections may be required, false alarms triggered on some protection devices.
Spacecraft operations: Surface charging may occur on satellite components, drag may increase on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and corrections may be needed for orientation problems.

Other systems: Intermittent satellite navigation and low-frequency radio navigation problems may occur, HF radio may be intermittent, and aurora has been seen as low as Illinois and Oregon (typically 50° geomagnetic lat.).

Nothing terrible, but a reminder that far more severe space weather (G4=Severe, G5=Extreme) is not only possible, it is virtually guaranteed.  We know that, because it has happened before. A few of many examples include:
  • 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 1989  an earth-directed storm caused a major power outage in Quebec, and in 2003, power stations in Europe were affected by another solar event (see NASA's The Day the Sun Brought Darkness)
  • A large Solar storm hit in May of 1967, knocking out radar and high frequency radio communications, and briefly had the U.S. military on alert thinking the USSR was jamming the airwaves (see How a 1967 Solar Storm Nearly Led to Nuclear War)
  • And the Granddaddy of them all, the 1859 Carrington Event,  which sparked electrical fires in telegraph offices, sparked auroras as far south as Cuba, and if repeated today would cause massive failures of the grid. 
 These disruptions are caused by sunspots, solar flares, and CMEs.
Solar flares are rated as either C Class (minor), M Class (Moderate), or X Class (extreme), and while the electromagnetic radiation they release can reach earth in only about 8 minutes time, their effects are mostly limited to disrupting communications and potentially damaging satellites.
A CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) is the ejection of a massive amount of plasma (electrons and protons & small quantities of helium, oxygen, and iron) from the the sun that may last for hours. Some of this plasma falls back into the sun, but trillions of tons can escape and if aimed in their direction, impact surrounding planets.

While they pose little direct physical danger to us on the earth’s surface (we are protected by the earths magnetic field and atmosphere), a large CME can wreak havoc with electronics, power generation, and radio communications
As we become more dependent upon sensitive electronic equipment (think power grid, internet, communications, etc.) these storms increasingly threaten both our economy and our society.
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
In 2015, 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. 
Last October, in Executive Order: Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events, we saw the White House's response to this threatdirecting the government to prepare for severe space weather.
The stakes are very high, as a direct hit by a G5 storm could take out large portions of the electrical grid for days, weeks, or even months.  In January of this year, the AGU's journal Space Weather published a study that attempted to quantify the costs of such an event.
Quantifying the daily economic impact of extreme space weather due to failure in electricity transmission infrastructure
Edward J. Oughton1,*, Andrew Skelton1, Richard B. Horne2, Alan W. P. Thomson3 and Charles T. Gaunt4
Version of Record online: 17 JAN 2017

The accompanying press release from the American Geophysical Union summarizes:
Extreme space weather-induced electricity blackouts could cost U.S. more than $40 billion daily

New study finds more than half the loss occurs outside the blackout zone

18 January 2017
Joint Release

WASHINGTON, DC — The daily U.S. economic cost from solar storm-induced electricity blackouts could be in the tens of billions of dollars, with more than half the loss from indirect costs outside the blackout zone, according to a new study.

Previous studies have focused on direct economic costs within the blackout zone, failing to take into account indirect domestic and international supply chain loss from extreme space weather.

“On average the direct economic cost incurred from disruption to electricity represents only 49 percent of the total potential macroeconomic cost,” says the paper published in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The paper was co-authored by researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies at University of Cambridge Judge Business School; British Antarctic Survey; British Geological Survey and University of Cape Town.

Under the study’s most extreme blackout scenario, affecting 66 percent of the U.S. population, the daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain.

(Continue . . . )

All of which leads up to a recent report by the USGS on the the potential impacts of a CME, and how they, and the nation, are preparing for it.  I've only included some excerpts, follow the link to read it in its entirety.

Preparing the Nation for Intense Space Weather
Such events can be hazardous to the economy and national security
Release Date: May 1, 2017

While major geomagnetic storms are rare, with only a few recorded per century, there is significant potential for large-scale impacts when they do occur. Extreme space weather can be viewed as hazards for the economy and national security.


When a large sunspot emerges, the likelihood of an abrupt emission of radiation and an intense solar wind becomes greater. When these winds reach the Earth, electrically charged particles enter the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and interior, inducing a geomagnetic storm. The storm can interfere with utilities, infrastructure, and technologies essential to modern society, disrupting daily life, the economy, and national security.
Informing Utility Companies

The USGS monitors the Earth’s magnetic field at 14 ground-based observatories positioned across the United States and its territories. Scientists continuously monitor the geomagnetic field throughout the Nation and its territories, providing information on magnetic storm intensity. Some USGS observatories have operated continuously for over 100 years.

“USGS observatories help support infrastructure critical to keeping the electric grid running smoothly in crises,” Olson said.

Utility companies use recently published geoelectric hazard maps to assess the vulnerability of power-grid systems and mitigate the adverse effects of intense magnetic storms, which, Olson says, “have had a history of shutting down the electric grid.”

NERC recently released two reliability standards for utility companies: One requires North American utility companies to develop operating procedures for weathering potentially serious geomagnetic storms, and the other requires utilities to carefully assess their systems to ensure they are prepared for a magnetic storm.

“These standards are supported by historical, global data and real-time information from the USGS on forthcoming hazards so that electric utilities can be as prepared as possible,” Olson said.
         (Continue . . . )

While efforts are being made to harden the grid and our electronics infrastructure against severe space weather, for now at least, they remain extremely vulnerable.  
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 months-long power outage - that envisions an absolute worst case scenario - which isn't the only (or even most likely) outcome.  As an added bonus, 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.

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 amount 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

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