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Officials Meet in Washington to Discuss Solar Storms, Great and Small
06.04.13
 
graphical depiction of the sun and Earth, as well as utilities that could be affected by space weather

Many technologies key to modern society are vulnerable to solar storms. Learn more from the National Space Weather Program.
Image courtesy NSWP
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When government officials and scientists get together to talk about space weather, the discussion usually centers on big events.

The Carrington superflare of 1859 set fire to telegraph stations in North America and Europe and sparked Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and Tahiti.

The Quebec blackout of 1989 cut power and heat to millions of people in Canada and caused more than 200 electrical anomalies across grids in the United States.

The Halloween storms of 2003 temporarily disabled instruments on dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites, with some experiencing permanent damage.

This week, policy makers and researchers are getting together in Washington to talk about space weather--but the discussion is a little different.

On June 4, the National Space Weather Program Council convenes the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum. The purpose of this year's meeting is not to talk about big events that happen rarely, but rather to explore lesser storms that happen often. The theme for the meeting is "SpaceWeather Impacts: They Happen All the Time!"

The forum opens on June 4 with a keynote address from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, followed by expert presentations from NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Air Force, the National Science Foundation, airlines, electric utilities and other space weather stakeholders. Congressmen, executive-branch undersecretaries and other policy makers will be in attendance, deciding what to do next.

"We are pleased to present a wide-ranging and informative slate of speakers to address this year's theme," said Samuel P. Williamson, the federal coordinator for meteorology and chairman of the National Space Weather Program Council. "Attendees include national and international leaders and stakeholders from across government, industry and academia."

The theme of this year's SWEF recognizes that space weather is ever-present. The gaps between big events are not empty times of quiet. They are filled with lesser storms that can pose a threat to our increasingly high-tech society.

Air travel is a good example. At the meeting, Thomas Fahley and Gregg Scott of Delta Airlines will detail how solar flares and radiation storms caused multiple flights to be redirected away from the poles during 2012. To avoid communications blackouts and high-energy radiation, which are concentrated around the poles during solar storms, more than 16 transcontinental flights were detoured to more southerly latitudes. On a per-flight basis, the detours consumed as much as 9,950 extra pounds of fuel and added as much as $4,507 to the price tag of each flight. Delays and missed connections multiplied costs even more.

And that was just Delta. Other major airlines around the world have similar stories to tell.

Space weather affected the airlines in 2012 despite the fact that solar activity was relatively low. There were only a handful of X-class solar flares during the 12-month period. And while magnetometers counted more than two dozen geomagnetic storms in 2012, the vast majority were minor. Earth's magnetic field did not experience extreme storming even once.

However, the statistics of muted solar activity conceal an underlying potency. Lika Guhathakurta, the head of NASA's Living with a Star Program at NASA Headquarters, put it into perspective:

"Who needs an X-flare?" she said. "Small flares are powerful, too. They explode with as much energy as a billion atomic bombs dozens to hundreds of times every year. We feel their effects even when they don't make the news." Guhathakurta pointed out that our society relies more than ever on high-tech devices such as GPS, telecommunications satellites and smart power grids. "This makes us increasingly vulnerable to solar storms, great and small."

The sun is currently near the peak of Solar Cycle 24, but so far the strongest storms have missed Earth.

In July 2012, for instance, one of the fastest coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, of the Space Age blasted away from the sun's western limb traveling 3,500 km per second (about 2,175 miles per second). The resulting radiation storm was the most intense such event since 1976. Earth, however, was not in the line of fire. In fact, the only reason we know about it is that NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft was located over the blast site and measured the full brunt of the storm.

In May 2013, after a quiet spell of many months, a sunspot on the sun's eastern limb unleashed four X-class solar flares in quick succession. Again, the fusillade was not Earth-directed, and the bulk of the resulting CMEs missed our planet.

During Solar Cycle 24 Earth-directed activity has been dominated not by X-flares, but rather by a steady drizzle of weak (C-class) to medium-sized (M-class) eruptions. These are the kind of everyday events that speakers at SWEF will address.

More information about SWEF may be found at http://www.nswp.gov/swef/swef_2013.html.
 
 
Tony Phillips
Heliophysics News Team