European and American science institutions are sounding the alarm about the real and pressing danger of space weather. At a time when man-made global warming scares are increasingly dismissed as fake news scientists are turning their attentions beyond our planet where perhaps the greatest threat to life exists.
In November 2016 an event co-organised by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, the UK Met Office, with the support of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center showed that many critical infrastructures in space and on the ground are vulnerable to the effects of space weather.
A detailed publication from the Joint Research Centre titled ‘Space Weather & Critical Infrastructures: Findings and Outlook‘ spells out in a 32-page downloadable PDF how tenuous our modern infrastructures can be in the face of changing space weather.
In a two-day summit held in Ispra, Italy almost 50 representatives of European infrastructure operators, regulators, crisis-response experts, academia, the European Space Agency, NOAA, the US Department of State, the US Science and Technology Policy Institute, NASA and the European Commission grappled with the issues.
As the report warns:
Historical evidence shows that many critical infrastructures in space and on the ground are vulnerable to the effects of space weather. Society relies increasingly on the services these infrastructures provide, and the risks from extreme space weather should be assessed to ensure adequate preparedness in industry and society.
At the end of the event a list of conclusions was agreed:
• Extreme space weather has a global footprint and can affect multiple ground- and space-based infrastructures at the same time. An event of such magnitude could overwhelm a single nation’s response capacity.
• Some countries have recognised the threat of extreme space weather and have included it in their strategic national risk assessment.
• There is a need to develop methodologies and tools for assessing interdependencies between critical infrastructures.
• A multi-risk governance approach is needed to address cascading effects and the different stakeholders that often manage the risk in isolation from each other.
• A pan-European vulnerability assessment of the power transmission grid should be carried out to identify criticalities and the potential for transboundary effects in case of extreme space weather.
• Infrastructure operators should assess if hidden vulnerabilities to space weather are embedded in their systems, for example via dependencies on GNSS.
• Significant knowledge gaps in physical and impact modelling persist. These gaps strongly affect early-warning capabilities and preparedness in industry.
• Better communication between science and industry is needed to provide relevant, reliable and usable information to operators for decision making.
• In Europe and the USA, 24/7 space-weather forecasting capabilities are available to support the early warning of government and industry.
• There is a need for consistency in forecasting and for coordination of forecasts from different service providers.
• A strategic plan should be developed to define the roles of the key players in Europe. This can include the establishment of a centralised European strategic decisionmaking capability for coordinating space-weather risk mitigation and response at a pan-European level.
• The USA has issued a National Space Weather Strategy that defines high-level strategic goals and actions for increasing preparedness levels.
The Known Historical Impacts
Past space-weather impacts have demonstrated the vulnerability of both ground- and space-based infrastructures to this type of hazard.
In addition, space weather has a global footprint and can therefore cause global impact, as demonstrated during the October 2003 space-weather storms: several satellites were damaged or suffered anomalies, numerous polar flights had to be rerouted, and there were reports of failure of GNSS4-based positioning and power disruptions in Europe, widespread HF outage over the African continent, and transformer damage in South Africa, as well as SatComm and HF outages in Asia and Australia.
There are three different types of solar activity that are of concern for critical infrastructure operations:
1) solar flares, which trigger radio blackouts very quickly and affect radar, ground- and space-based communications, including high-frequency (HF) communication, and the GPS network causing loss of lock;
2) solar radiation storms, which are a threat to satellite operations, aviation and manned and robotic spaceflight; and
3) geomagnetic storms, caused by the ejection of magnetised solar plasma (socalled Coronal Mass Ejection or CME) which interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, causing impacts to satellite operations, GPS, aviation, rail transport and power-grid operations. Of particular concern is extreme space weather, such as the Carrington storm caused by a fast CME in 1859.
A storm of such magnitude could result in major and possibly long-term disruptions of critical-infrastructure services with significant economic losses. It is believed that such a geomagnetic storm could overwhelm a single nation’s response capacities. The probability of Carrington-type space-weather events is assumed to lie between 6 and 12% within the next decade. However, for a major geomagnetic storm to occur on Earth, the triggering CME needs to be aimed at Earth and carry a southward magnetic field to be able to interact with the magnetosphere.