The space weather forecasting imperative

The incoming trump administration needs to maintain the momentum surrounding space-weather hazard Preparation.

Space weather has the potential to impact critical infrastructure in orbit and on the ground. Credit: NASA Artist's Concept

Space weather has the potential to impact critical infrastructure in orbit and on the ground. Credit: NASA Artist’s Concept

Earth is embedded within regions of space that contain large fluxes of charged particles along with intense electric and magnetic fields.

These near-Earth regions are termed the ionosphere and magnetosphere and they are extensions of Earth’s protective neutral atmosphere. The entire Earth system is continually bathed in variable streams of damaging radiation, energetic particles and hot gases from the sun.  The conditions and changes in the connected regions of near-Earth space are referred to as space weather.

Satellites can be damaged by space weather events. Electromagnetic blasts and high-energy charged particle radiation from the sun can cause major disruptions to all modes of communication. Currents generated in the magnetosphere by massive ejections of plasma from the sun can induce currents in the power grid that have severe operational consequences, or can even cause catastrophic damage that imperils not only our economy but also the basic functions of our society.

With each passing year our society becomes more dependent on the use of satellites. The defense of the nation depends on the utilization of space. It is vulnerable to communication outages from space weather events, loss of accurate GPS satellite information for precision-guided munitions, and degradation of situational awareness to determine whether a disruption of satellite operation is due to a natural event or a potential enemy. The power grid, which is already stressed to support our growing economy, can be severely compromised by induced currents from space weather events.

On Oct. 13, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order entitled “Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events.”  This Executive Order follows upon two other recent notable policy actions. The first of these was the “Space Weather Action Plan” (SWAP) issued by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in October 2015. The other was the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act” introduced as Senate Bill 2817 in April.

The Oct. 13 presidential order notes that it is the explicit policy of the United States to minimize economic loss and human hardship that can result from space weather. The order states that the U.S. government must be able to continually detect space weather episodes and, quite importantly, must be able to predict such deleterious events before they affect Earth. Thus, alerts and warnings of impending space weather episodes must be provided and mitigation strategies must be developed for both the public and private sectors.

Critical infrastructure must be protected and recovery strategies must be designed to deal with losses and effects for which proper preventive protection is not possible. These requirements pose considerable challenges in order that federal agencies and departments will be suitably coordinated in their actions and plans.

We, the authors, are part of a group of practicing space scientists who have written a document to address the imperative of improving our nation’s ability to provide space weather forecasting capability. The main conclusions of this document are that space weather solutions are:

IMPERATIVE: There should be no doubt by any policy or decision maker that we are in a race against time. The infrastructure of our technological civilization, in space and on the ground, is increasingly vulnerable to space weather. Yet, we are currently unable to forecast space weather with sufficient accuracy and timeliness to protect the infrastructure and mitigate the impact space weather events have on our economy and the welfare of our people.

FEASIBLE: It is clear that improving our capability to forecast space weather, to the level required to protect our infrastructure, is not difficult, provided that we are willing to make the required effort, and secure the needed resources.

COST EFFECTIVE: We should not consider that the cost of this effort is at all prohibitive. The United States spends $5.1 billion a year forecasting terrestrial weather, which, by some studies, has an economic impact on our everyday lives in excess of $30 billion per year. The cost of forecasting space weather will be a small fraction of the amount required for terrestrial weather forecasts. Yet, with each passing year, as our dependence on satellites grows, and our infrastructure becomes more vulnerable to space weather, the economic impact of space weather on our lives will grow to be comparable to that of terrestrial weather. Should a catastrophic space weather event occur, in which there is major damage to our power grid and our orbiting satellites, the economic impact will dwarf that of any hurricane or other such natural disaster.

In the view of our science community, there are three basic principles for a successful and effective space weather forecasting program. The program must be:

OPERATIONAL: The program must be dedicated to yield an operational forecast capability for space weather that serves those who require these forecasts to protect the infrastructure of our nation, support our commerce, protect human life and defend our nation. The task is the same for those who forecast terrestrial weather, and as with terrestrial weather forecasts, to be successful the users of space weather forecasts must be integrally involved in the planning and execution of the program.

COMPREHENSIVE: Space weather events originate on the sun, propagate through the region between the Earth and the sun, impact the Earth’s magnetosphere and follow various pathways into regions of the Earth’s near-space environment that directly affect our infrastructure. Improving the accuracy of the forecasts, and how early space weather can be predicted, requires knowledge of the origin and evolution of a space weather event in each region of space and the coupling among the regions.

SUSTAINABLE: The effort must contain elements that build a sustainable program, beginning with elements that can be executed immediately and yield demonstrable improvements in forecast accuracy. Given the urgency to close the gap between our current capabilities to deliver timely forecasts of space weather and what is required, the program must contain elements that will yield an immediate improvement in forecast accuracy.

To be successful, there are three basic implementation requirements for an achievable and successful program. The program must:

BE BASED ON AND EMPLOY INNOVATIVE TECHNOLOGIES: We are fortunate that there is a revolution underway in computational capabilities and innovative ground- and space-based technologies, for instruments, spacecraft, data handling, model development, launch costs, etc., all of which should be fully employed to yield the most cost-effective program for delivering the space weather forecasting capability the nation requires.

MOBILIZE THE NATION’S CAPABILITIES: There are vast capabilities available in universities, national laboratories, government agenciesand industry, for instruments and spacecraft data interpretation and model development. This community of scientists and engineers needs to be mobilized to engage fully in this important national effort to improve our space weather forecasting capability.

BE ORGANIZED FOR SUCCESS: The implementation of this important national effort must be able to embrace the requirements of this program: mobilize the requisite community of scientists and engineers to accomplish the program; obtain and utilize all relevant innovative technologies; connect the users of space weather forecasts with the providers of these forecasts, and providers with researchers; and above all be committed to success that is unburdened by bureaucracy. By doing so, the program must develop and implement expeditiously a space weather forecasting program that protects our technological civilization.

The incoming presidential team needs to maintain the momentum that has built up over recent years concerning preparedness for space weather hazards. The space science community stands ready to serve the national need and will use its talents to help improve forecasts and help protect the nation from space weather impacts into the future. The time for action is now.

Len Fisk is the former chair of the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board. Daniel Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Nicola Fox is the principal professional staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.