Solar Storms Test Earthbound Preparedness

August 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine

Scientists, researchers and military organizations step up observations of the sun ahead of  the solar max season.

A predicted increase in the number and intensity of solar storms is forecast for 2013, and solar weather experts are advising both the public and private sector to make preparations.

At the same time, however, even the most knowledgeable experts in the field of space weather say that because they still have so much to learn about the science behind solar storms, it is difficult to forecast them accurately. Compounding the situation is the fact that currently it is impossible to provide advice on how to prepare for the arrival of a so-called solar max year.

Solar storms have been occurring at roughly 11-year intervals for most of the history of the solar system. But it has been only within the last century that extreme instances of electromagnetic energy from solar events have adversely affected a planet on which humans are more dependent on electronic technology than in the past.

Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, is one of the nation’s top experts on geomagnetic disturbances, or GMDs, as they are referred to in the scientific community. Kunches says that in the absence of more hard scientific knowledge about solar storms, scientists know that recent history at least provides a statistical means for predicting when solar max years can be expected.

“The sun has had this behavior for a long, long time; it’s a cyclical behavior,” Kunches explains. The real goal, he adds, is to know in advance how strong the storms are going to be, when they are going to take place and how many might occur. But he warns that all of those goals are beyond the realm of current capabilities.

One of the first instances of Earth-bound human technology being affected by a solar flare took place during late summer in 1859. Some scientists have dubbed this a “solar superstorm” because of its intensity and also because of the existence of other conditions that exacerbated the effects of GMDs. In August that year, one of the largest coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, ever recorded traveled at a high rate of speed toward Earth and, as one of its first noticeable effects, caused telegraph systems to fail. Telegraph operators experienced electrical shocks, and some systems continued to appear to send messages even after their damaged power systems were disconnected.

As recently as 1989, a solar storm had a similar, more widespread effect. On March 10, 1989, scientists observed a massive explosion on the surface of the sun. Two days later, electrical power was knocked out in the Canadian province of Quebec. Outages also took place in New York and much of New England, but U.S.-based electrical systems were able to acquire power from neighboring states and regions to compensate. Quebec, on the other hand, was dark for more than 12 hours as officials struggled to restore the system. It was later learned that the solar storm created strong ground-based electrical currents that had affected electrical grid equipment in Quebec and as far south in the United States as Ohio. Since then, power officials in Quebec have installed new equipment on distribution grids that they hope will make the grid less vulnerable to electromagnetic extremes.

Today, Kunches says, scientists generally know that there are certain characteristics about the sun, and the behavior of its magnetic fields, that are reliable predictors of a solar max season. “People have studied how magnetic flux makes its way from the core of the sun to the surface, resulting in an eruption, and then it becomes a matter of how unstable these fields become,” he asserts.

Kunches notes that his organization currently is tracking some extremely strong magnetic fields on the surface of the sun, but these fields are in what he describes as a quiet state and so far have not resulted in solar flares or CMEs. He explains that solar weather forecasters take all the available data to try to determine, based on past experience, how these magnetic fields will evolve, and, if they turn into solar flares or CMEs, how strong a solar storm they might become.

One branch of the U.S. Defense Department that also is watching the way the solar winds blow during the upcoming solar max season is the Air Force. Col. Dan Edwards, USAF, is chief of Integration, Plans and Requirements, Directorate of Weather, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, in Washington, D.C. He says that monitoring solar storms is a part of the Air Force Space Command’s mission known as Space Situational Awareness.

“We operate in space. We have satellites that operate in space, and so we need to know the environment,” Col. Edwards explains.

The Air Force has a number of concerns when it comes to solar storms, according to Lt. Col. Brad Green, USAF, chief, Space Operations Plans with the Air Force Directorate of Weather:

Geolocation errors in systems that rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS), including land navigation, weapons systems, positioning and timing systems. This is a special concern for GPS, as its orbital array of satellites are vulnerable to spikes of ground current that can result from GMDs interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Radar interference caused by spikes in ambient radiation because of GMDs.

Launch trajectory errors from electromagnetic interference.

Damage to Air Force and civilian communications satellites in low earth orbit because of electromagnetic interference.

Deterioration of satellite orbits from increased atmospheric drag resulting from changes in the upper atmosphere caused by severe GMDs.

Col. Edwards says his branch also is concerned about the health effects of high levels of radiation on Air Force pilots traveling at high altitudes over the North Pole in aircraft such as the U-2. Because of the tilt of the Earth, the North Pole is more vulnerable to solar flares and CMEs than other parts of the planet, depending on the time of year the solar storm occurs.

“Overall, the effects of solar weather are very complex,” Col. Edwards says, underscoring the need to continue to monitor the sun during the coming solar max year. But, like Kunches, Col. Edwards is quick to acknowledge that while he and his colleagues have learned a lot over the last few years, including obtaining a better understanding of the basic science behind solar storms, “We still have a long way to go.”

The SWPC where Kunches works, and the Air Force Weather Office, are two of the U.S. organizations that track solar activity on a round-the-clock basis. They share what they learn with a wide coalition of stakeholders in the scientific, government, military and academic communities.

“We take data from satellites, ground-based observatories, pretty much everywhere we can get it around the world, and we produce alerts, warnings and watches on space weather as they occur,” Kunches explains.

Kunches notes that agencies normally associated with dealing with emergencies first-hand, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), receive constant updates from the SWPC. The key, he says, is putting the word out as quickly as possible. Speeding the flow of information on impending solar storms is one of the goals of a recently announced interagency, cross-discipline initiative of which the SWPC is a part.

What is a Solar Storm?

Solar storms begin deep below the surface of the sun, explains Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Kunches says that between this year and 2014, the sun will develop strong magnetic fields that will well up within its surface. Periodically, these fields become twisted, and they erupt, producing solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A CME is the release of large amounts of electrically charged plasma that are part of the sun’s nuclear reaction. "The Earth has its own magnetic field, which normally protects us from the charged particles of the sun, while the atmosphere protects us from some of the radiation. When the sun erupts, it actually energizes the rings of the Earth’s magnetic field, and it becomes disturbed, and rings like a bell," Kunches explains.

In the process of trying to compensate and return to its natural state, he asserts, the magnetosphere creates strong currents of electrical energy that are capable of disrupting power grids and other electrical transmission equipment.

The Unified National Space Weather Capability (UNSWC) was unveiled in June during the Space Weather Enterprise Forum, an annual conference of space weather experts held in Washington, D.C. The UNSWC, organized through the White House Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services, includes NOAA and its parent agency, the Department of Commerce; FEMA/DHS; the departments of Defense, Energy and State; the U.S. Geological Survey and its parent, the Department of the Interior; the Federal Aviation Administration and its parent, the Department of Transportation; the National Science Foundation; and NASA.

In the short term, the UNSWC’s goal is to focus the resources of federal agencies in the area of solar storm research and observation when it comes to the upcoming solar max year in 2013, with an eye toward supporting scientific research and observation of the sun through a National Space Weather Portal. The UNSWC also will attempt to educate the U.S. public on how to prepare for the possibility of extended power outages in the event of a solar storm. Finally, the UNSWC also is expected to help coordinate science and forecasting efforts with international counterparts, including the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office, the Korea Radio Research Agency (the South Korean government entity tasked with the same spectrum regulatory functions as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) and the World Meteorological Organization.

Col. Edwards says that in terms of collaborating with the global solar weather community in monitoring the sun, the Air Force has a number of global sensors that provide geomagnetic data and other information that contribute to the research and forecasting effort.

Organizations that operate the private sector, as well as commercial electric power grids that serve most homes in the United States, also are taking steps to prepare for the solar max year.

Mark Lauby is vice president and director of reliability assessment and performance analysis with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) in Washington, D.C. NERC is one of several industry groups representing private-sector electrical transmission grid operators. Lauby says that the biggest challenge to the grid is voltage collapse, or the failure of electrical transformers because of spikes in electromagnetic energy from the solar storm.

Lauby also says that grid operators need better simulation software, data and information to measure the spikes in ground current that result from solar storms, and the effect that those spikes have on power lines and other grid components.

Another area of concern to the grid industry is the possible failure of older electrical transformers, such as the ones that failed in Quebec in 1989. “Some transformers of an older design are more vulnerable to damage than others,” Lauby explains, adding that NERC and other industry groups have embarked on a program to identify vulnerabilities to the effects of the GMDs. Those plans were outlined recently during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Technical Conference on Geomagnetic Disturbances to the Bulk-Power System.

With the space- and ground-based resources available, the SWPC is able to provide roughly an hour’s notice of a possible severe solar storm, Kunches says. Systems and programs now under development hopefully will improve upon the time and accuracy of future eruptions.

As for preparing for the solar max season ahead, Kunches says that given the current level of scientific understanding, and with electrical grids in varying states of vulnerability for the onset of a solar storm, the best planning that most people can do right now is to be prepared for the possibility of no electrical power for an extended period of time.

Col. Edwards says that his advice to the Air Force chief of staff, to whom he reports, also is to be prepared for the possibility of an extended loss of electrical power at Air Force facilities in the event of an extreme geomagnetic disturbance.

Lauby says NERC and other private electricity grid operators also are taking steps to minimize service disruptions from solar-storm related service outages.

NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center:
U.S. Air Force Weather Observer:
National Space Weather Program/Unified National Space Weather Portal:
North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC):
NERC Comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Technical Conference on Geomagnetic Disturbances to the Bulk-Power System:


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