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GUEST COLUMN: Possible solar storms are a major threat

By: Antonio J. Busalacchi
April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 4:05 am
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As Colorado Springs next week prepares to host the premier global meeting of the space industry with such featured speakers as Vice President Michael Pence, concerns are growing that our state - and, in fact, the nation - is dangerously vulnerable to massive solar storms.

Colorado is a national leader in the aerospace industry. In addition to hosting the annual Space Symposium at The Broadmoor, it is home to more than 400 aerospace companies and some of the foremost solar research laboratories in the world, with more than 180,000 space-related jobs.

This activity places Colorado on the front lines of a competitive space race with China, Russia, and other nations, which are investing billions of dollars into their fast-growing satellite programs. It has major implications for the U.S. economy and national security, especially as Pentagon leaders warn of the potential for conflicts to reach space.

However, the aerospace industry and our technologically dependent society are increasingly vulnerable to powerful solar storms that spew millions of tons of charged matter toward Earth. These space weather events can imperil the health of astronauts and passengers on high-altitude flights, distort GPS signals, scramble satellite operations, and disrupt communications and power systems.

Few natural disasters compare with the far-reaching destruction of such an event. A major solar storm in 1989 cut off power to millions of Canadians, and powerful storms in 2003 led to malfunctions on more than 40 satellites.

A solar superstorm, on the magnitude of one that ignited fires in telegraph offices in 1859, could knock out power for months to years for more than 100 million Americans and cause as much as $2 trillion in damages - the equivalent of close to 20 Hurricane Katrinas.

Forecasters, however, can provide only about 30 minutes of warning before a solar storm buffets our atmosphere. That does not give sufficient time for satellite operators and utility managers to fully shield vulnerable electronics and power down critical hardware.

The good news is Washington has recognized this threat. The White House in 2015 unveiled a National Space Weather Action Plan that directed federal agencies to prepare for a major solar storm.

Last year, the Senate unanimously passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado with Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan. This bipartisan legislation, which still needs to pass the House, would provide critical support for new technologies, potentially leading to forecasts of solar storms hours or even days in advance.

With investments in a new generation of space- and ground-based instruments, we can obtain continual measurements of magnetic fields throughout the solar atmosphere. Such measurements could detect storms at earlier stages and reveal the magnetic direction of incoming charged particles, which affects the ability of a storm to penetrate our atmosphere and disrupt particular regions on Earth.

We also need advanced observational and computer modeling capabilities that can measure and predict the buildup of energy in twisted magnetic fields in the solar atmosphere before they erupt and spew tons of charged particles in our direction.

Federal investments in such technologies may cost many millions of dollars. However, the return would be enormous, given the vulnerabilities of our increasingly technological-dependent society and the economic prominence of the nearly $900 billion U.S. aerospace and defense industry.

Our solar forecasting capabilities are comparable to weather prediction before World War II, when forecasters would know a storm was coming but lack details about its intensity or track. Since then, federal agencies, private companies, and university researchers have worked together to advance weather prediction in ways that have saved countless lives, spurred economic growth, and supported military operations.

In much the same way, investing in space weather prediction is critical for our prosperity and national security. Colorado and the nation will reap the benefits.

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Antonio J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research since August 2016, has a distinguished career in the geosciences; extensive experience in management of academic, laboratory, and government programs; and a broad knowledge of the community.

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