The U.S. National Intelligence Council, which provides DNI James Clapper with long-term strategic analysis, was asked in 2012 to come up with possible black-swan events that could have a crippling impact on the U.S. and world. The result was the December 2012 report entitled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative World Report.” This report stated that coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun could “knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices.” Such CME events occur as often as 15 times a week during Solar Max, and if these ion ejections, traveling at millions of miles an hour, intersect with the Earth, they could create very big-time problems. In short, space weather can create a natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP). We know this because we have detailed information about what happened with the Carrington event of 1859, which set telegraph offices ablaze and brought the Northern Lights down to Cuba and Hawaii. In more recent times, there was the Montreal event of 1989, which took out power from Chicago to Montreal, or the Halloween event of late October 2003, which took out power in Scandinavia.
On Oct. 13, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order to coordinate U.S. government efforts among the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, and NASA to protect and respond to a massive coronal mass ejection. This is a key step forward in efforts to respond to space-weather threats. Other nations should consider this executive order as a model in looking to their own defenses against cosmic hazards. NASA has estimated that there is over a 10-percent chance of a CME hit within the coming decade.
The key question is: why is the threat from these solar storms from our local star more dangerous than ever before? There are at least two reasons.
1.) We have increasingly high populations concentrated in megacities that depend highly on satellite, telecommunications, networking and power systems, and automated pipelines. The world is now 53-percent urban and headed toward becoming 80-percent urban by the end of the century. People in cities are highly dependent upon modern infrastructure. This is not only for light, electrical power and communications, but for food, water and their service-based jobs. If we lose the GPS satellites, this takes out aircraft landing- and take-off systems, the synchronization of the Internet, satellites critical to national defense, and on and on.
2.) A protective system called the Van Allen belts guards us against EMPs created by being zapped by a coronal mass ejection. A blast from a CME carrying billions of tons of ions traveling at 1-3 million miles an hour is warded off today by these highly ionized belts, which are created by the Earth’s magnetic core. But we have a problem. The Earth’s magnetosphere is shifting, and Obama’s recent executive order explicitly recognized this as a key part of our possible vulnerability.
If a blast from the sun were to come on a vector that would hit the Earth today, the Van Allen belts would divert the incoming ions toward the magnetic poles and prevent (for the most part) a destruction of electrical power grids, automated pipelines, telecom systems, computer networks and orbiting satellites. But there’s a rub: The Earth’s magnetic field is shifting, and some models suggest that our Van Allen belt shields are being compromised. During the shift, their effective shielding powers might go down to 15 percent of what they are today. This is a big problem.
Without this natural protection, Earth would also lose its atmosphere, and human life as we know it would be lost. The reason that Mars has little atmosphere today is that it does not have a magnetic core to create protective belts like Earth has.
There is new information gathered from recent space probes, such as the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites and NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale satellites. This new data is possibly showing us that the Earth’s iron core is shifting. The North Magnetic Pole has moved down to Siberia, and the South Magnetic Pole is moving northward. Among other things, this means that the Van Allen belts will also change, and some modeling suggests that the protective shielding during this magnetic shift may drop down well below what it is today. There is growing concern that a major coronal mass ejection from the sun that hits Earth with an ionic blast is the No. 1 cosmic threat to modern society, in terms of likelihood and degree of devastation. This is not to say that major asteroid strikes are not a serious concern.
This magnetic shift means that the black-swan event that was described in the National Intelligence Council’s 2012 report is becoming more likely, and the effects could be much, much worse. A study conducted by Lloyds of London — before the problem with the Van Allen belts’ shielding was better known — estimated the financial impact and catastrophic loss just for North America to be gigantic without estimating loss of life.
The bottom line is that we need to give new priority to cosmic-space hazards on a global scale. We need to explore whether there are new and better solutions to be pursued. These might involve creating magnetic effects to reshape the Van Allen belts during the shift or creating a solar shield at L-1 Lagrangian point. This L-1 point is the region where the gravitational field of the sun and the Earth cancel out. This region is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or four times further than the moon, and would be the ideal place to create a magnetic shield to supplement the protections of the Van Allen belts. The interesting thing about the latter idea is that we might try the idea out for Mars first. By creating a solar shield for Mars we could create an artificial atmosphere for the planet that could potentially allow for future terraforming to support life.
The space agencies are not in the business of saving Earth or humanity, but they do want to ensure the continuation
of three things: space exploration, space sciences and space applications. To get action on this cosmic-hazards issue, the nature of the problem and possible solutions must be recognized at the highest leadership levels. Obama’s recent executive order is a key first step in this direction.
Joseph N. Pelton is a member of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety’s executive board and a former dean of the International Space University.