US Woefully Unprepared for Space Weather

US Woefully Unprepared for Space Weather

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The Carrington event was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm that hit the Earth 156 years ago. Unlike now, back then electricity did not rule our lives. Turns out we’re overdue for another storm, and this time its consequences could be far more severe.

Major solar flares, caused by a buildup of magnetic energy in the sun, blast out radiation and particles across the solar system. They vary in frequency and strength, and are often directed away from Earth. Severe solar events, however, are thought to threaten our planet every 100 years or so. The 1859 Carrington event is thought to have been the biggest flare in 500 years.

A large solar flare in March this year served as a slight reminder of how things could turn out if a major event occurred now when some radio transmission stations were knocked out in some parts of the world. A Carrington-scale event would affect everything from hand-held devices to power generation stations. Modern life as we know it could be over while countries scramble to restore defunct infrastructure. No internet, no phones, no cars – no device exposed to the flare would survive.

“This is a real and present danger. This is a real threat,” said Bill Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The US government is now tackling the issues, or at least planning to tackle it.

In October, the White House released a contingency plan to be implemented in the event of such a massive electromagnetic flare. The plan calls for the participation of a US-wide network of governments, agencies, emergency services, academia, media, insurance industry, nonprofits and private sector actors in a six-step process to prepare for a possible energy knockout.

Not all, however, are impressed.

“It is a plan to develop a plan to protect the nation from space weather,” said Peter Vincent Pry – a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency and currently executive director of the congressional advisory Task Force on National and Homeland Security and the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum. “The ‘action’ in the ‘National Space Weather Action’ is to do numerous studies, before taking any real action that would protect the national power grid.”

According to estimates by NASA and the US National Science Foundation, an infrastructure-destroying EMP could kill up to 90 per cent of the affected population within a year. Knowing this, we can only hope that world leaders will come together to prepare for such an event before it is too late.