An ejection of charged particles from the Sun emits clouds of plasma that can interact with and disturb Earth’s magnetic field, potentially creating electrical currents that can disrupt or damage the electrical power grid and other infrastructure systems. Credit: SOHO
Source: Space Weather

Space weather originates far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but its effects can be felt much closer to home. Eruptions on the surface of the Sun can be accompanied by the ejection of an enormous cloud of charged particles with a magnetic field. If the cloud interacts with Earth’s (geo)magnetic field, which functions like a protective bubble against harmful radiation, it can cause a disturbance. A geomagnetic disturbance can manifest as induced electrical currents in Earth’s crust. These geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) can disrupt or damage the electrical power grid and other infrastructure systems.

Sunspots from the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record, drawn in 1859. A and B mark initial positions of bright regions which over 5 minutes moved to C and D, then disappeared. Credit: Richard Carrington

The most powerful geomagnetic disturbance on record was the Carrington event of 1859, named for one of the amateur astronomers who first observed it.  Since then, many less intense geomagnetic disturbances have been observed. The potential threat from an extreme geomagnetic disturbance has increased with the widespread reliance on modern technology.

A geomagnetic disturbance in March 1989 caused a significant power outage in Canada and damage to electrical power grid components in Canada and the United States. This event marked a new interest in GIC research by both the U.S. federal government and private industry. The prominent insurance market Lloyd’s produced a 2013 report that estimates a modern space weather event as powerful as the Carrington event could cause trillions of dollars in damages in North America and leave 20–40 million people without power for up to 2 years.

According to a new analysis of space weather policy in the United States by Jonas and McCarron, this risk has led to a number of policy activities. The House of Representatives has passed space weather legislation every year since 2009, and in 2010 Congress recognized space weather as a significant threat in the NASA Authorization Act. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security released the Strategic National Risk Assessment, which designates space weather as a threat to homeland security. Recognition of space weather’s effects resulted in a shift toward action in 2014, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopted a standard requiring electrical power grid owners and operators to address geomagnetic disturbances. On the global stage, intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are coordinating efforts to address space weather.

In the coming years, the federal government plans to bolster its preparations for space weather events. In 2014 the White House developed the Space Weather Operations and Research Mitigation Task Force, which, in October 2015, released the National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan. The strategy and action plan set goals and specify activities that include establishing benchmarks for space weather events and enhancing response and recovery capabilities.

Finally, the fiscal year 2017 Science and Technology Budget Priorities for the U.S. executive branch emphasize the importance of space weather research, further underscoring the need to harden electronic-dependent societies against space weather hazards. The authors emphasize the value of this increased awareness and interest on the part of political leaders—responsible policy will help to protect lives and livelihoods. (Space Weather, doi:10.1002/2015SW001310, 2015)

—Shannon Kelleher, Writer Intern

Citation: Kelleher, S. (2016), Space weather gains national and international attention, Eos, 97,doi:10.1029/2016EO045115. Published on 8 February 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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