At Delta Air Lines’ operations center in Atlanta, meteorologists do more than monitor the usual wind, rain, and snow. They also keep a close eye out for a less common but potentially more dangerous phenomenon known as space weather. The sun’s eruptions can send billions of tons of superheated, electrically charged gas hurtling through the solar system. When these clouds hit the earth’s magnetic field, they can result in geomagnetic storms that disrupt electric power and communications systems.
Space weather can play havoc with air-to-ground communications. Delta and other airlines reroute dozens of flights a year to avoid affected areas. It’s “nearly always minor enough that flight time is not significantly impacted,” says Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant. Transpacific flights between Asia and the East Coast of the U.S. are the most likely to be affected. Don’t expect the pilot on such a flight to come on the intercom and announce the plane is turning to avoid a blast from outer space. Instead, he’ll say it’s because of weather, Durrant says, “which is an accurate characterization.”
Most people have no idea that combating the effects of geomagnetic storms is a part of doing business for industries worldwide. With enough warning time, operators of New York’s power grid can alter voltage and reduce transfers across the system to protect against the strong ground currents generated by the storms. Companies that rely on GPS services may delay drilling, mining, or land surveys when satellite communications are disrupted by space weather. But corporations and the federal government may not be prepared for a severe geomagnetic storm—akin to a 100-year flood—that could fry electrical equipment and wipe out power to major cities for weeks or longer.
From a small office in Boulder, Colo., William Murtagh and a small team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center monitor the sun 24 hours a day, sending alerts to industries and foreign governments when space storms are on the way. Murtagh, the center’s program coordinator, is well-versed in the damage geomagnetic storms can cause. Perhaps the most formidable megastorm on record happened in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, it lit up night skies from Hawaii to Australia and led to telegraph outages around the world. Of course, no one alive today was around for it. “It is in the human nature,” Murtagh says, “to assess the threat based on your own life span.”
Smaller storms in more recent years offer hints of what could happen if a Carrington-size event hit today. In March 1989, Canada’s Hydro-Québec power system collapsed during a geomagnetic disturbance, leaving 6 million people without electricity for more than nine hours. 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 Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A Halloween storm in October 2003 disabled a GPS-based system used by the Federal Aviation Administration for 30 hours and blacked out part of Sweden. Twelve transformers in South Africa were damaged beyond repair. That event was about a quarter the size of the Carrington storm, says Jeffrey Love, an adviser for geomagnetic research at the U.S. Geological Survey. “Unfortunately, with only a few observations of the occurrence of superstorms in the past, predicting the future occurrence of a similar monster is very difficult,’’ he says.
A 2008 report published by the National Academy of Sciences drew attention to the risks. It cited Kappenman’s earlier work, which said a severe storm could disable hundreds of the U.S. grid’s high-voltage transformers, leaving more than 130 million people in the dark for months. The reinsurance industry has recently begun to raise concerns about the fallout from a major sun storm. A 2013 report by Lloyd’s of London warned that such an event could, among other things, disrupt financial markets, food supplies, transportation systems, and hospital services at an economic cost of as much as $2.6 trillion.
Frank Koza, executive director of infrastructure planning for regional grid operator PJM Interconnection, says he isn’t convinced transformers would fail in large numbers and lead to the long-term outages Kappenman describes. The company, which operates a good chunk of the U.S. power grid in 13 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, makes adjustments to prevent disruptions to service when sun storms occur. Still, he says, “I’m struggling with that severe event John has proposed.”
The U.S. government is often able to give only 30 minutes’ warning about geomagnetic disruptions. The space center provides alerts of possible sun storms a day or more in advance. To do all of this, it relies on solar data from four aging satellites. One of these, NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, or ACE, was launched in 1997 and is operating long past its intended life span. The U.S. and other nations share information about sun storms. But much of the world, including Great Britain, China, and Japan, depends on data from U.S. satellites.
Complicating matters, responsibility for space weather satellites, forecasting, and research is divided among several agencies, including NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense. NOAA is working with NASA to resurrect a mothballed NASA satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, to serve as a replacement for the ACE. The Pentagon turned to Elon Musk’s company, Space Exploration Technologies, to place the satellite in orbit. The launch was tentatively planned for November 2014, but cuts to NOAA’s budget have pushed it back to January 2015.
NASA is experimenting with a new spacecraft to help scientists evaluate and anticipate space weather: a giant solar sail, propelled by sunlight and carrying advanced instruments that could increase storm warning times. NASA and the craft’s maker, L.Garde, a space technology company based in Tustin, Calif., planned to launch the sail in 2015. Now NASA says it isn’t clear when the launch will be, according to spokesman David Steitz.
While they await new satellites and sensors, Murtagh and his team in Colorado continue to operate the world’s most esoteric warning system with the tools they’ve got. By government standards it’s a lean operation, with a budget of just $9.6 million. Says Kappenman, “They’ve accomplished a lot with little resources.”