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Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report
collateral socioeconomic disruptions. Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend. Although the probability of a wide-area electric power blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event is low, the consequences of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through other, dependent systems. Collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration. The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impacts as well.
Extreme space weather events are low-frequency/high-consequence (LF/HC) events and as such present—in terms of their potential broader, collateral impacts—a unique set of problems for public (and private) institutions and governance, different from the problems raised by conventional, expected, and frequently experienced events. As a consequence, dealing with the collateral impacts of LF/HC events requires different types of budgeting and management capabilities and consequently challenges the basis for conventional policies and risk management strategies, which assume a universe of constant or reliable conditions. Moreover, because systems can quickly become dependent on new technologies in ways that are unknown and unexpected to both developers and users, vulnerabilities in one part of the broader system have a tendency to spread to other parts of the system. Thus, it is difficult to understand, much less to predict, the consequences of future LF/HC events. Sustaining preparedness and planning for such events in future years is equally difficult.
Our knowledge and understanding of the vulnerabilities of modern technological infrastructure to severe space weather and the measures developed to mitigate those vulnerabilities are based largely on experience and knowledge gained during the past 20 or 30 years, during such episodes of severe space weather as the geomagnetic superstorms of March 1989 and October-November 2003. As severe as some of these recent events have been, the historical record reveals that space weather of even greater severity has occurred in the past—e.g., the Carrington event of 18591 and the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921—and suggests that such extreme events, though rare, are likely to occur again some time in the future. While the socioeconomic impacts of a future Carrington event are difficult to predict, it is not unreasonable to assume that an event of such magnitude would lead to much deeper and more widespread socioeconomic disruptions than occurred in 1859, when modern electricity-based technology was still in its infancy.
A more quantitative estimate of the potential impact of an unusually large space weather event has been obtained by examining the effects of a storm of the magnitude of the May 1921 superstorm on today’s electric power infrastructure. Despite the lessons learned since 1989 and their successful application during the October-November 2003 storms, the nation’s electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so, in terms of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring long restoration times. According to a study by the Metatech Corporation, the occurrence today of an event like the 1921 storm would result in large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130 million people and would expose more than 350 transformers to the risk of permanent damage.
SPACE WEATHER INFRASTRUCTURE
Space weather services in the United States are provided primarily by NOAA’s SWPC and the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF’s) Weather Agency (AFWA), which work closely together to address the needs of their civilian and military user communities, respectively. The SWPC draws on a variety of data sources, both space- and ground-based, to provide forecasts, watches, warnings, alerts, and summaries as well as operational space weather products to civilian and commercial users. Its primary sources of information about solar activity, upstream solar wind conditions, and the geospace environment are NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), NOAA’s GOES and POES satellites, magnetometers, and the USAF’s solar observing networks. Secondary sources include SOHO and