Rich Cooper

Jun 15, 2010

If you can’t see a threat, or describe it in terms that the average person can understand or appreciate, is it really a threat? That was the challenge put before 200+ scientists, physicists, meteorologists and other very technical specialists at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum on June 8 at the National Press Club. This highly unique assembly gathered to discuss the emerging concerns regarding increasingly dramatic changes in our universe’s space weather.

Space weather you ask? First off, this is not about meteor showers, alien invasions or Texas-sized asteroids colliding with the Earth. Rather, it is about how our sun and planet interact with one another and impact upon our atmosphere and life here on Earth.  

With terms such as ionosphere, magnetosphere, cosmic radiation and geomagnetic storms, the eyes of the general public and most of the population are likely to glaze over in a coma when a subject matter expert tries to talk about the topic in a public forum. As technical and high-brow as each of the just-mentioned terms might be, none of them conjures frightening images or public reaction the way words like hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes might.

That is the challenge the forum’s attendees had. There are some deadly serious events occurring off of our sun and while it may be billions of miles away, its happenings have tremendous consequences here on Earth. Solar winds, flares and other increased radiological releases from the sun have long impacted our planet and the other entities in our solar system. As a result, the atmosphere surrounding Earth, as well as the climate and inhabitants on this planet, are directly impacted.

For generations, these events went unrealized, but with newfound curiosity, education and capabilities, scientists and astronomers began to piece together an understanding that what happens way out there has a direct impact upon our life here. For the most part, Earth’s atmosphere protected us from harm from these radiological outbursts. But truth be told, we have had more than our share of instances in the past 50 or so years where solar flares and radiation have disrupted the operations of our orbiting satellites; impaired communications and GPS abilities; disrupted power distribution; and caused other problems.  

Because of these events and a better understanding of what’s happening in space, space weather forecasts have started allowing satellite operators, human space flight operations and other interests to prepare accordingly. While there are some actions that can be taken to safeguard these assets from being fried by solar flares, etc., they are still serious threats that need to be considered and prepared for when it comes to space weather.

That was the message that FEMA’s Administrator, Craig Fugate, delivered. Recognizing that he was a fish out of water in a room full of technically minded scientists and astronomers, the notable emergency manager addressed the crowd as one of the believers in the space weather threat.  

He explained that as the person who leads America’s largest emergency management network, the country is looking to him and FEMA colleagues to take action on a range of threats, such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. When he mentioned the threat of geo-magnetic storm or other space weather disturbance, he explained that nearly no one – from the general public to other emergency managers to the people he interacts with at the White House – has a clue on what he is talking about. He called upon the Space Weather Forum attendees to get him better data, better forecasts, and increased warnings so that he, along with others in the room, could better educate policy makers and the general public. Without it, he could not adequately prepare the public.  

Fugate also drove home the point through anecdotal examples that when a geomagnetic or solar storm event occurs, it will not just impact one small geographic area like a flood, fire, or tornado.  Impacts with such a storm would be hemispheric in size and would have tremendous disruptions to infrastructures (e.g. communications, power/energy, etc.).

In chronicling the history of these events and their previous occurrences, Fugate stated bluntly that we as a nation are not ready to deal with these storms. He further explained that while the country had endured previous large geomagnetic storms, our country and world today are so absolutely dependent upon a range of vulnerable technologies (e.g., satellite transmissions, GPS, cell phones, etc.) to run everything that when “the big one” hits us, we are going to be in really bad shape. In that situation, the idea of who is in charge of what becomes very important and no one had a good idea of those responsibilities at the present time.  

Fugate shared that he was starting to exercise his senior leadership team and other FEMA personnel to begin thinking through these scenarios. He also explained that he had exercises on the horizon to expose more federal, state, local, and tribal personnel to these prospective situations as well. While he spoke in generalities about his concerns, Fugate specifically mentioned the survivability of GPS and existing communications architectures.  

His remarks and his attendance at this niche issue gathering spoke volumes. Despite all of the PhDs and space weather geniuses that filled the National Press Club ballroom and have worked these issues for years, nothing gave their warnings more credibility than having Fugate walk into the room and state that he believed in the threat they were warning him about. It’s not as if Fugate doesn’t already have enough to worry about. It’s already Hurricane Season 2010 and Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and others have already endured their own catastrophic weather events this week.

Now we’ve now got something else to worry about and prepare for.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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