Earth Needs More Robust Early Warning Space Weather Systems

By Stew Magnuson

A panel of experts gathered on Capitol Hill recently in an effort to tone down some of the doomsday scenarios being associated with solar storms.

The notion that highly charged particles ejected from the sun will send civilization back to the Dark Ages when it destroys electrical grids has been propagated by the media and the producers of television shows.

“This is a very complicated field that you cannot condense into a few sound bites,” said Madhulika Guhathakurta, lead scientist with the Living With a Star Program at NASA. But when a major solar storm is approaching, the media takes a few quotes and sensationalizes them.

“It gets condensed into: ‘The power grid is going to collapse and all hell is breaking loose,’” she added.

Frank Koza, executive director of infrastructure planning support at electricity distributer PJM Interconnection, said utilities generally have a four- to six-hour warning of when a large solar storm is approaching Earth. They can take measures to mitigate the effects, he added. Like the study of the sun, heliophysics, the procedures utilities take to gird themselves against solar storms are complicated and difficult to reduce to a sound bite, he said.

“We can as simply as possible explain some of these phenomenon and what we do to counter-act them and trust people will understand,” he said.

“We would like people to know that mitigation is there, and it is working,” he added.

The sun and its relationship to planets such as Earth is not well understood, and the field of heliophysics is relatively new, panelists said. Space weather predictions are about where terrestrial weather forecasts were 40 years ago, said Thomas Berger, director of the National Weather Service’s space weather prediction forecast office in Boulder, Colorado.

Today there are only a handful of satellites tasked with observing the sun. They are like buoys in a vast sea of space that goes on for millions of miles. They provide critical data that helps forecasts, but these are mostly research spacecraft or payloads piggybacking on other satellites and not specifically designed to forecast space weather, Berger said.

Col. Rob Swanson, Air Force chief of weather strategic plans and interagency integration division at the Air Force’s directorate of weather, listed 10 critical military missions that can be affected by solar storms. Chief among them was the disruption of GPS signals and high frequency radio communications.

One or two satellites are “killed off” by solar storms every solar maximum — a period of intense activity on the sun which occurs every 11 years, Berger said.

The challenge for the space community is making lawmakers who hold the purse strings understand the importance of space weather forecast, and the impact that events can have on modern technology, he added.

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