NASA forecasts impact of severe space weather on communications, power grids

It's not Armageddon but a NASA-funded study is showing some of the first clear economic data that quantifies the risk extreme weather conditions in space have on the Earth.

The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences notes that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, NASA said. Such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, NASA said.

One of the driving reasons for the study is that the sun is currently near the minimum of its 11-year activity cycle but solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity toward the next solar maximum, expected to occur around 2012.

For example, space weather can:

  • Produce solar storm electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines, causing wide-spread blackouts and affecting communication cables that support the Internet.
  • Produce solar energetic particles and the dislocation of the Earth's radiation belts, which can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning and weather forecasting.

Space weather has caused problems with technology since the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century, NASA said. The study recounts the impact of some past space weather events.

  • Most often cited perhaps is the collapse within 90 seconds of northeastern Canada's Hydro-Quebec power grid during the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, which left millions of people without electricity for up to 9 hours.
  • The outage in January 1994 of two Canadian telecommunications satellites during a period of enhanced energetic electron fluxes at geosynchronous orbit, disrupting communications services nationwide. The first satellite recovered in a few hours; recovery of the second satellite took 6 months and cost $50 million to $70 million.
  • The diversion of 26 United Airlines flights to non-polar or less-than-optimum polar routes during several days of disturbed space weather in January 2005. The flights were diverted to avoid the risk of HF radio blackouts during events. The increased flight time and extra landings and takeoffs required by such route changes increase fuel consumption and raise cost, while the delays disrupt connections to other flights.
  • Disabling of the Federal Aviation Administration's recently implemented GPS-based Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for 30 hours during severe space weather events between October-November 2003.

The study goes on to say that despite the lessons learned since the 1989 event in Canada and other events, the nation's electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so, in terms of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring long restoration times. According to a study by the Metatech Corporation, the occurrence today of an event like the 1921 storm would result in large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130 million people and would expose more than 350 transformers to the risk of permanent damage.

Space weather has always generated a lot of interest. In July the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to perform an experiment called the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE) that will employ the Iridium constellation of 66 communications satellites and new software to measure the electric currents that link Earth's atmosphere and space. By measuring this component of the space weather system, AMPERE will allow 24/7 tracking of Earth's response to supersonic blasts of plasma ejected from the sun, the group said.

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