Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Space Weather: What Emergency Managers Need to Know

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.

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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