Those concerned about the hazards posed by near Earth objects often bring up the Tunguska event, a massive June 1908 explosion in Siberia caused by a meteor airburst. Those worried about space weather, by comparison, mention the Carrington event, a powerful September 1859 solar storm that created brilliant auroras close to the Equator.
The Carrington event was relatively harmless, other than for a few telegraph operators who suffered electric shocks. A similar event today, however, would be devastating: the geomagnetic storm would interfere with GPS and other satellite signals, and destroy transformers that could bring down portions of the power grid for months or even years.
Last fall, the White House unveiled it s National Space Weather Strategy, its plan to better understand, and prepare for, the effects of solar storms. The strategy sets six strategic goals, such as improving space weather prediction techniques and better understanding the effects of space weather on critical infrastructure. An accompanying “action plan” lays out specific steps for implementing the strategy, assigned to various agencies.
“We recognized that we as a nation must address this, and we decided we would do that with a national strategy and action plan,” said William Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during a panel session on space weather at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington Feb. 15.
More importantly, though, the administration is backing up that plan with funding. NASA’s 2017 budget request includes $10 million within its heliophysics program to support parts of the action plan, including developing benchmarks for solar storm effects.
That’s the most visible, but not the only, part of the budget request devoted to carrying out the space weather plan. A U.S. Geological Survey geomagnetism program will see its budget double, to more than $3 million, to identify regions that might be the most vulnerable to the effects of solar storms.
Other s agencies will be involved in the strategy, Murtagh said, including NOAA and the Department of Homeland Security, but their funding isn’t as clearly called out in the budget request. “We were rushing to get this strategy done in time to influence the 2017 budget request,” he said. “We had some success, but not as much as I would have liked.”
But just how real is this threat? That is, how likely is another Carrington event? Pete Riley, senior scientist at Predictive Science, Inc., said at the AAAS panel he estimates about a 10-percent chance of a storm of that magnitude in the next decade. That estimate, he cautioned, is based on a number of assumptions, including just how powerful the Carrington event was.
Daniel Baker, director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said that the Earth narrowly missed a solar storm similar to the Carrington event in July 2012. “If this had occurred just a few days earlier, when the Earth was in the line of fire,” he said at the panel, “we would still be picking up the pieces from this storm.”