When we think about threats to our modern civilization, many will point to terrorism, nuclear war, global warming, and else. However, due to the reliance on technology which drastically increased over the last decades, few may be aware of the threat which space weather poses to our modern world.
In this article, we are going to explore what Space Weather is, why it is a threat to us and and what can possibly be done to prevent the worst.
Space Weather – As Defined by NASA
According to NASA, space weather describes the dynamic conditions in the Earth’s outer space environment, in the same way that „Weather“ and „Climate“ is used to describe the conditions in Earth’s lower atmosphere.
It includes any and all conditions and events on the sun, in the solar wind, in near Earth-space and in our upper atmosphere ‚that can affect space-borne and ground-based technological systems and through these, human life and endeavor‚.
The science of space weather is called Heliophysics (from Attic Greek hḗlios which means „sun“, and the noun ‚physics‘ which is the science of matter and energy and their interactions).
Space Weather Effects on Earth
Our modern society depends on a variety of technologies which are susceptible to the extremes of space weather. During auroral events, strong electrical currents are driven along the Earth’s surface which disrupts electric power grids and contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines.
Geomagnetic storms cause changes in the ionosphere which then interfere with high-frequency radio communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation.
Polar cap absorption events caused by solar protons, results in compromised radio communication for commercial airliners on transpolar crossing routes.
Spacecraft exposed to energetic particles during solar energetic particle events and radiation belt enhancements result in temporary operational anomalies, damage critical electronics, degrade solar arrays, and blind optical systems such as imagers and star trackers. Explorers – whether human or robotic – across the solar system are also affected by solar activity. As the NASA website explains:
„Research has shown, in a worst-case scenario, astronauts exposed to solar particle radiation can reach their permissible exposure limits within hours of the onset of an event. Surface-to-orbit and surface-to-surface communications are sensitive to space weather storms.“
Geomagnetic Storm Scale
Definition: Geomagnetic storms (aka solar storms) are temporary disturbances of the Earth’s magnetosphere that are caused by a solar wind shock wave and/or cloud of magnetic field that interacts with the magnetic field of the Earth.
The Geomagnetic storm scale, from the NOAA, shows the different levels of severity. It is denoted by a G followed by a number from 1 to 5 (1 = minor event; 5 = extreme event).
The scale uses the planetary K-Index (Kp as it’s physical measure). A short explanation on the Planetary K-index from the NOAA/NWS:
„The K-index, and by extension the Planetary K-index, are used to characterize the magnitude of geomagnetic storms. Kp is an excellent indicator of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field and is used by SWPC to decide whether geomagnetic alerts and warnings need to be issued for users who are affected by these disturbances.
The principal users affected by geomagnetic storms are the electrical power grid, spacecraft operations, users of radio signals that reflect off of or pass through the ionosphere, and observers of the aurora.“
A strong solar storm has once hit the world, but that was on September 2, 1859. It caused the disruption of the telegraph service in the United States and Europe, igniting widespread fires as well. Colourful auroras, which are usually visible only in polar regions, were seen as far as Cuba.
It is important due to the severe consequences such solar storm would have today, as elaborated in the Space-dot-com article:
„The solar storm of 1859 was three times more powerful than one that cut power to an entire Canadian province in 1989. Experts say if it happened today – and it could – the result might be unthinkable.
If a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages by crippling communications on Earth and fueling chaos among residents and even governments in a scenario that would require four to 10 years for recovery, according to a report earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences. For comparison, hurricane Katrina inflicted somewhere between $80 billion and $125 billion in damage.“
What can be done?
For one, the focus on space weather prediction should increase and more funding allocated towards the endeavor, if necessary. Additionally to its science program, NASA already works together with other agencies to fulfill the space weather research or operational objectives [of the nation].
„Presently, this is accomplished with the existing fleet of NOAA satellites and some NASA scientific satellites. Space weather “beacons” on NASA spacecraft provide real-time science data to space weather forecasters. Examples include ACE measurements of interplanetary conditions from the Lagrangian point L1 where objects are never shadowed by the Earth or the Moon; CME alerts from SOHO; STEREO beacon images of the far side of the Sun; and super high-resolution images from SDO. NASA will continue to cooperate with other agencies to enable new knowledge in this area and to measure conditions in space critical to both operational and scientific research.“
Next to science, the public should be also made aware of space weather as a potential threat. Ideally, the government works on a plan to ensure order in case of a worst-case scenario (like in 1859). It should be done objectively and not used to make the people unnecessarily anxious; simply rising awareness is the goal.
There should also be a training program regarding the worst-case for civil servants, the police, military, etc. to avoid chaos in such an event.
On an economic level, measurements can also be taken. For instance, power generators and other elements of our infrastructure which are susceptible to space weather, espcially geomagnetic storms, should be easily replaceable. This, in turn, means that additional generators and else have to be built and stored underground (plus monthly, quarterly, or annual inspections to ensure that they work if needed).
While all of these measurements do not prevent a solar storm from occuring, they do help a lot in case we experience severe space weather (in my opinion, at least). If you have more questions regarding space weather, then visit the following link of NASA: