Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun. Oh, but Mama, that’s where the fun is.
No one understands that Bruce Springsteen song more than William Murtagh. In a small government office near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Murtagh and other federal employees monitor the sun 24 hours a day, waiting for it to erupt and fling a cloud of superheated, supercharged gas toward Earth.
The Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, sends alerts to power grids, airlines, oil drillers and even pigeon trainers on the risks of geomagnetic storms that can disrupt communications, electric power, and, yes, perhaps the birds’ sense of direction.
The center also may provide the first clue to the worst-case scenario described in academic and government reports: widespread power outages, food shortages and trillions of dollars in economic damages. The reinsurance industry is increasingly sounding alarms, calling space weather a potential hazard in today’s wired world.
While the U.S. has taken steps to prepare for a mega-storm from space, the center is often able to provide only an estimated 30-minute warning of geomagnetic disruptions. The government spends less than $10 million on the facility, which must fight annually for funding within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The little office relies on data from aging satellites it doesn’t control and that need to be replaced.
What the public and Washington may have forgotten is the long history of geomagnetic storms. “It is in the human nature to assess the threat based on your own lifespan,” said Murtagh, a scientist who is the center’s program coordinator and has a background in forecasting.
In March 1989, the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada collapsed during a geomagnetic disturbance, leaving 6 million people without electricity in a blackout that lasted more than nine hours. Montreal’s subway system was paralyzed in morning rush hour.
The storm may have come close to “toppling power systems from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. to the Midwest,” John Kappenman, a space weather consultant, wrote in a 2010 report for the federally funded Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has added the Pacific Northwest to that list.
The Halloween Storm in October 2003 disrupted oil and gas drilling. Malmo, Sweden, suffered a blackout. At the time, some U.S. lawmakers were pushing to eliminate the center’s funding and shift the work elsewhere.
A 2008 report published by the National Academy of Sciences drew more attention to the risks. It cited Kappenman’s work, which said a severe storm could zap hundreds of the U.S. grid’s high-voltage transformers, leaving more than 130 million people in the dark for months or longer, with economic costs possibly reaching several trillion dollars.
“The National Academy report changed everything,” said Bob Rutledge, who’s in charge of the space center’s forecast office. “There’s a lot of disagreement on this, but it put this on the radar.”
Today, the space-weather office has about 40,000 subscribers worldwide for its e-mailed alerts, including watches giving a day or more of advance notice of possible events and roughly 30-minute warnings for imminent storms.
Alerts go to grids, airlines, satellite firms, governments and companies using satellite-based, high-precision GPS services for mining, land surveys and deep-sea drilling, Murtagh said.
Some pigeon trainers monitor forecasts for geomagnetic storms, suspecting the disturbances play a role in “smash” races, when birds return later than expected or don’t come back at all.
On very rare occasions “they’ll completely disappear off the face of the Earth,” said Frank McLaughlin, co-owner of Hanson, Massachusetts-based McLaughlin Lofts, which breeds racing pigeons. “And nobody would really know what happened.”
Geomagnetic storms are typically associated with coronal mass ejections, or violent blasts of hot, magnetized gas from the sun. When those clouds slam into the Earth’s magnetic field -- the fastest in less than a day -- they may result in geomagnetic storms.
The mother of modern geomagnetic storms is known as the Carrington Event. In August and September of 1859, auroras lit up the skies from Honolulu to Queensland in Australia. Telegraph networks around the world experienced outages.
The storm was about four times larger than the 2003 disturbance, said Jeffrey Love, an adviser for geomagnetic research at the U.S. Geological Survey.
It’s hard to say when another big one will arrive. If a Carrington-level storm were to strike again, zapping the North American electric grid, it could be a disaster.
It might damage transformers across the grid, leaving as many as 40 million people in the U.S. without power for 16 days to two years, according to a report last year by Lloyd’s of London, the world’s oldest insurance market. Long-term outages risk disrupting financial markets and triggering “major and widespread social unrest,” with estimated economic costs as high as $2.6 trillion, Lloyd’s said.
The apocalyptic scenarios have their skeptics.
Frank Koza, executive director of infrastructure planning for regional grid operator PJM Interconnection LLC, said he doesn’t think transformers would simultaneously fail in large numbers and lead to the long-term outages described by Kappenman.
“I’m struggling with that severe event John has proposed,” said Koza. PJM operates a good chunk of the U.S. power grid in a 13-state network in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
Federal regulators have forced power companies to develop standards to protect the grid, though serious improvements will only come with “wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides,” Kappenman said.
He said the government has been slow to replace older satellites providing space-weather data and to bolster the small office, which Kappenman calls underfunded and under-appreciated.
The office has a staff of fewer than 40 employees and a number of unfilled positions. Its budget for the current fiscal year is an estimated $9.6 million, according to figures from NOAA, part of the Commerce Department.
“They’ve accomplished a lot with little resources,” Kappenman said.
David Miller, a NOAA spokesman, said the space center’s “operational system” is fully funded every year.
“Any oscillations in funding are on the development side, which can be affected by budget constraints, such as sequestration, when there is a need to prioritize operations that provide warnings and forecasts to protect life and property,” he said in an e-mail.
NOAA is working with NASA to resurrect a mothballed NASA satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, to bolster the aging fleet. The Air Force has turned to billionaire Elon Musk’s company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., to launch it.
The launch date, tentatively planned for November 2014, was pushed to January 2015 as NOAA absorbed automatic federal spending cuts.
The observatory is a gap-filler for NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, or ACE, which launched in 1997 and is long past its mission life.
A developing technology -- a solar sail propelled by the sun’s winds and carrying space-weather instruments -- is being closely watched by scientists.
The spacecraft may be launched in 2016, said Charles Chafer, chief executive officer of Space Services Inc., a closely held company based in Houston that is working on the project with NASA and Tustin, California-based L.Garde Inc.
It’s too early to tell whether the giant sail will work. If it does, it may lower costs and double the warning time, Chafer said.
Murtagh, who grew up in Ireland, joked that he was glad to see the sun when he came to America. Yet he knows better than to stare directly into its eyes and even tries to curb the enthusiasm of young visitors to the space center who might be tempted to do so.
“The last thing I want them to do is run outside and look at the sun,” he said.