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Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report
by members of the ad hoc committee that organized the workshop, and it summarizes the key themes, ideas, and insights that emerged during the 1½ days of presentations and discussions.
THE IMPACT OF SPACE WEATHER
Modern technological society is characterized by a complex interweave of dependencies and interdependencies among its critical infrastructures. A complete picture of the socioeconomic impact of severe space weather must include both direct, industry-specific effects (such as power outages and spacecraft anomalies) and the collateral effects of space-weather-driven technology failures on dependent infrastructures and services.
Industry-specific Space Weather Impacts
The main industries whose operations can be adversely affected by extreme space weather are the electric power, spacecraft, aviation, and GPS-based positioning industries. The March 1989 blackout in Quebec and the forced outages of electric power equipment in the northeastern United States remain the classic example of the impact of a severe space weather event on the electric power industry. Several examples of the impact of space weather on the other industries are cited in the report:
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 PCA 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 the severe space weather events of October-November 2003.
With increasing awareness and understanding of space weather effects on their technologies, industries have responded to the threat of extreme space weather through improved operational procedures and technologies. As just noted, airlines re-route flights scheduled for polar routes during intense solar energetic particle events in order to preserve reliable communications. Alerted to an impending geomagnetic storm by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and monitoring ground currents in real-time, power grid operators take defensive measures to protect the grid against geomagnetically induced currents (GICs). Similarly, under adverse space weather conditions, launch personnel may delay a launch, and satellite operators may postpone certain operations (e.g., thruster firings). For the spacecraft industry, however, the primary approach to mitigating the effects of space weather is to design satellites to operate under extreme environmental conditions to the maximum extent possible within cost and resource constraints. GPS modernization through the addition of two new navigation signals and new codes is expected to help mitigate space weather effects (e.g., ranging errors, fading caused by ionospheric scintillation), although to what degree is not known. These technologies will come on line incrementally over the next 15 years as new GPS satellites become operational. In the meantime, the Federal Aviation Administration will maintain “legacy” non-GPS-based navigation systems as a backup, while other GPS users (e.g., offshore drilling companies) can postpone operations for which precision position knowledge is required until the ionospheric disturbance is over.
The Collateral Impacts of Space Weather
Because of the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather events can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as to long-term