While extreme space weather is considered a low probability event, it could have catastrophic effects on the U.S. — and even the world.
When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tweets about space weather warnings, people sometimes reply and ask if they should don aluminum hats. Although the thought of severe weather in space might sound like a plot from a science fiction novel, the threat is real — and could potentially cause widespread blackouts and shut down the electric power grid for an extended period of time.
Experts have said the effects from a major storm would be much worse than Hurricane Katrina — picture hundreds of communities without power, which would mean no water, communications would eventually go down, and commerce would come to a halt.
Extreme space weather is a low-probability but high-impact event. It has come onto emergency managers’ radar within the last few years and is now being added into planning efforts at federal and state agencies. And now is the time to work it into preparedness activities. Solar weather works in 11-year cycles, and a solar maximum is expected in May 2013, meaning there’s an increased chance for an extreme event.
“It’s not going to knock your house down; you’re not going to get radiation sickness from it,” Fugate said. “But these very complex, large-scale interactions in the upper atmosphere can cause disruption to terrestrial systems — primarily power lines and pipeline systems — that may result in power outages and disruptions in communications that would then affect people.”
To understand space weather, it’s best to start with a look at the three types of storms:
Solar flares are violent explosions in the sun’s atmosphere. It can take up to eight minutes to feel the flares’ effects on Earth, which can include the loss of high-frequency communications and impacts on GPS and radar systems. The effects can last minutes to about three hours.
Solar radiation storms are elevated levels of radiation that occur when the numbers of energetic particles increase. The effects are felt on Earth 30 minutes to several hours later, and the duration can last hours to days. This type of storm can impact satellite systems, and there are concerns that it could also disrupt communications systems.
Geomagnetic storms are the largest of the three types and are caused by coronal mass ejections, explosions in a region around the sun called the corona. The effects can arrive on Earth 20 to 90 hours later, so warnings can be issued in advance. This type of storm can cause wide-ranging impacts to GPS and the power grid; geomagnetic storms also can cause intense damage to transformers, which could keep electric power from fully recovering for an extended period.
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record took place in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm electrified telegraph lines, which then shocked technicians and ignited telegraph papers, according to NASA. Now, 153 years later, power lines and critical infrastructure crisscross the country, and people and industry are dependent on the electricity they provide. In addition, the increase of this infrastructure has made the nation — and the world — significantly more at risk to space weather.
“The biggest geomagnetic storm of modern times occurred in 1989, and that brought the electric grid down in Quebec and Montreal,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The storm left 6 million people without power for about nine hours.
And that’s one of the main concerns surrounding space weather. A large geomagnetic storm can potentially short out or destroy transformers, the devices that transfer electrical energy from one circuit to another, and that constitute the basis for many power distribution systems. A strong storm could knock out hundreds of transformers, therefore leaving a large area in a blackout.
The good news is that the SWPC can provide alerts in advance of these storms — but the bad news is that there isn’t a stockpile of transformers on hand in case one or more needs to be replaced. “There aren’t 200-ton transformers on spare in the back room somewhere,” Murtagh said. “In many cases, [transformers] are designed with specifications unique to their location.”
Rich Andres, senior research fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, said that replacing transformers is “very difficult.” They must be shipped from overseas, and no one has the capacity to make them very quickly. “If you started talking about hundreds of transformers that need to be replaced, it could be months and more likely years before you could replace them,” he said.
Although most aspects of planning for these types of storms fall under the all-hazards approach, the potential disruption to the power grid requires partnering with the private sector — to educate it about the threat, sharing how such an event would impact services and operations. Another important aspect, Fugate said, is understanding that some of an agency’s response capabilities could be impacted. Satellite-based systems and communication systems are vulnerable to the effects of a space storm.
FEMA began working space weather into its planning efforts in 2009 and is developing a response plan for it. After meeting with officials at the SWPC, FEMA held a tabletop training exercise on the topic in conjunction with the European Union. FEMA receives reports and does routine briefings when space weather occurs, and if there is a warning about a storm that has the potential to impact the Earth, the agency’s representative will video conference with the SWPC to get more information about it.
Based in Boulder, Colo., the SWPC is a 24/7 operation that functions like any other weather office — it tracks and forecasts weather, and issues alerts and warnings — but it’s focused on solar and geophysical events. It has a product subscription service that provides email alerts for those who wish to receive them. Fugate said FEMA looks to the center as the “official voice” of space weather threats and capabilities.
By understanding the phenomenon, emergency managers and the public will better understand how to plan for and respond to it, Murtagh said. Since space weather doesn’t pose a direct threat to people — they won’t be harmed by a storm in the same way that other natural disasters like tornadoes can — some say that’s why this topic has been on the back burner of planning efforts. But that’s changing in states such as Maryland and Florida.
In late 2010, Maryland became engaged in the topic and within the last six months has gotten aggressive about it, said Mike Fischer, director of operations for the state’s Emergency Management Agency. “What we’re looking at is how government responds and reacts when you don’t have power or communications,” he said.
Maryland is working to educate communities, government agencies and first responders about the threat, and is also interested in developing standard operating procedures around it. In the state, a recently established Office of Resiliency is going to focus on public-private partnerships, community resiliency and long-term recovery.
“I think the overarching theme where we’re going with this is back, as somebody said, to the old civil defense era where you looked after yourself and your neighbor,” Fischer said.
With the community-resiliency approach, the state is teaching people how to take care of themselves and their neighbors, because if a catastrophic event were to occur, government would only be able to provide support for so long. In addition, if people can take care of themselves, the government can focus on getting industry back up and running, which will benefit everyone.
Fischer said Maryland also is recommending the use of 20 percent renewable energy. Chuck Manto, a consultant and CEO of Instant Access Networks, echoed that sentiment: “If we made 20 percent of power, we could hobble along if [the power grid] were to go down indefinitely,” he said. One of the benefits of looking at low-frequency, high-impact events, Manto added, is that it makes communities more sustainable, which prepares them for all types of emergencies.
Florida has also incorporated space weather in its emergency preparedness efforts. William Booher, external affairs director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said via email that space weather is a facet of the Florida Energy Assurance Plan training and exercise series. “This year, there will be training courses and workshops offered regionally and a statewide exercise executed, which will use the potential impact of an extreme geomagnetic storm as the simulated event,” he said.
The division also works with the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council to coordinate with electric utility companies, which can participate in the state’s energy assurance exercises and provide technical and situational expertise during the exercise planning process, according to Booher.
In addition to sources like the SWPC, other organizations are working to provide space weather information and increase planning in emergency management organizations. InfraGard, a partnership between the FBI and the private sector, is organizing a national conversation between emergency planners and critical infrastructure operators to discuss this issue and the effects from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which is produced when a nuclear device explodes at a high altitude and could have impacts similar to a geomagnetic storm. Manto is leading this effort and said subject-matter experts are being recruited to serve on advisory panels.
“We will also organize leaders among the key critical infrastructure [sectors] across the country,” he said, “so that people will actually be able to learn from each other and talk to each other.”
Manto cited an EMP Commission report finding that said if 10 percent of the nation’s most critical infrastructure were protected, 40 percent of the economic damage from an EMP event would be avoided because communities would maintain situational awareness and some of their viability. Manto said his company has received grants to research electromagnetic shielding, and he also is developing a local power protection system.
John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants, said he has demonstrated a device that can block geomagnetically induced currents from entering the power grid. The device, however, is not currently installed in the power grid, he said. “There’s still a lot of debate occurring on the topic of whether we need to do it and how we should modify the design of the power grid to harden it.”
A report of a 2009 workshop hosted by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) and U.S. Department of Energy said the 1989 event that caused a blackout in Quebec resulted in lessons learned for the industry. “Since that time, the sector has adopted operational procedures to reduce the vulnerability to geomagnetic storms and has installed certain protections in areas most prone to impact as recommended by Oak Ridge National Labs in their report on the March 1989 event,” the report stated. “More work is needed, however, to consider the potential impacts larger storms may have and develop viable, cost-effective mitigations, potentially at lower geographic latitudes than previously thought necessary.”
Representatives from NERC were unavailable to comment as of press time as the corporation was completing a report on space weather.
There is one thing that space weather experts agree on: A large geomagnetic storm will occur.
“We know big storms have occurred before,” Kappenman said. “They will occur again — given sufficient time it is a certainty.”
He said the physics of the sun has, for the most part, not changed, and the physics of the Earth and its magnetic field also haven’t changed. “What has changed dramatically is we have built a lot of infrastructure, like electric power grids, that are enormously coupled to these disturbances,” Kappenman said.
The development of the grid occurred mostly during the last 60 years, and in that time, there have only been relatively small space weather storms.
And experts won’t say if a large geomagnetic storm can be classified as a 100- or 500-year event. The SWPC’s Murtagh said two events that occurred in the last 200 years would have significant impacts if they took place now, but he won’t estimate when the next one might occur. “We might go the next 300 years without seeing one with a large magnitude or it might happen two weeks from now — what do you do with that?”
Organizations can take steps to protect equipment from the effects of space weather and electromagnetic pulses. Chuck Manto, a consultant and CEO of Instant Access Networks, recommends a triage approach — assigning needs based on priorities — to address the potential effects from these disasters. He’s helping Maryland improve contingency plans county by county so if one of these emergencies occurs, there’s a better chance of working through it.
The first, most basic step is to unplug equipment like computers and phones in an agency’s EOC when they’re not in use. This won’t guarantee that the equipment will be protected from natural or man-made events, but this step gives it a better chance. “There are some things that everybody in every organization and community can do that doesn’t help you a whole lot, but is really inexpensive and improves your odds,” Manto said.
The second step is to shield important items. According to Washington state’s Office of Radiation, the two methods are metallic shielding or tailored hardening. Metallic shields are made of a continuous piece of metal, such as steel or copper. However, neither substance offers a perfect solution. “A metal enclosure generally does not fully shield the interior because of the small holes that are likely to exist,” the office says on its website. Tailored hardening focuses on the most vulnerable circuits and elements, enabling them to withstand higher currents. Manto said this can include using surge protectors that are rated to withstand an electromagnetic pulse.
Finally, develop work-arounds for assets that are too hard or expensive to protect, according to Manto. “You assume that part’s dead and work around it the best you can.”