EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation - July 26, 2006

Space Weather and Critical Infrastructure
An Introduction for Emergency Managers

William Murtagh
Space Weather Forecaster/Customer Focus Representative
Space Environment Center
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)


Joseph Kunches
Chief, Forecast and Analysis Branch
Space Environment Center
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Avagene Moore
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! We are pleased you could join us today!

Today's topic is the "Space Weather and Critical Infrastructure: An Introduction for Emergency Managers." I believe you will find this topic of great interest.

I was in Boulder Colorado a couple of weeks ago and had an opportunity to visit the Space Environment Center. Our speaker and others there very graciously gave us a tour of the facility. If you happen to be in the Boulder area, I recommend a tour of the NOAA facility. It was the highlight of my trip and I am delighted that we are able to share this information with you today.

It is my pleasure to introduce our guests today, Bill Murtagh and Joseph Kunches. These gentlemen work closely with private industry, national and international agencies, emergency managers, and government officials, so that property damage and operational impacts of space weather are minimized through appropriate response and adequate preparedness plans.

Bill Murtagh is a Space Weather Forecaster at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Space Environment Center (SEC) in Boulder Colorado. Bill also serves as the SEC Customer Focus Representative, and is chief of the SEC forecaster training program.

Joe Kunches is the Chief of the Forecast and Analysis Branch at the SEC. He also serves as the Secretary of the International Space Environment Service (ISES), a consortium of eleven nations plus the European Space Agency, chartered to share data and products worldwide among the member nations and organizations.

Bill and Joe are sharing one computer today so you will see only Bill identified as our speaker but Joe will be contributing when we get to the Q&A portion of our program. If you have not read the background page, please do so after our session today to learn more about both of our speakers and to check out the related Web site references.

Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum, Bill and Joe. We are delighted to have you with us today. Bill, I now turn the floor to you for your formal remarks.


Bill Murtagh: Greetings from the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder Colorado. We appreciate this opportunity to speak on the EIIP Forum, and we thank you all for joining us today.

We realize that many of you are new to the concept of weather in space, so we thought it best to structure our presentation in three parts:

1. Who we are and what we do

2. Space Weather 101 - a quick introduction to space weather

3. Why you should care - what are the impacts of space weather on you?

So, a short piece first on who we are and what we do. The Space Environment Center (SEC) is part of the National Weather Service, and one of the nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction. You may be familiar with some of the other NCEPs such as the National Hurricane Center and the Storm Prediction Center.

The SEC provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events, conducts research in solar-terrestrial physics, and develops techniques for forecasting solar and geophysical disturbances.

A team of Space Weather Forecasters and Operations Specialists operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and continually monitors and forecasts Earth's space environment. Much like our colleagues in weather offices around the country, we issue watches, warnings, and alerts for hazardous weather events. The difference of course is our responsibility is "space" weather, and our domain of concern is way above the clouds, stretching all the way to the Sun.

We are the Nation's official source of space weather alerts and warnings. The SEC Forecast Center is jointly operated by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force and is the national and world warning center for space weather disturbances that can affect people and equipment on Earth and in the space environment. We have two Air Force folks assigned to SEC.

The Air Force has a 24-hour space weather operations center in Offutt AFB in Omaha, NE. Their responsibility differs from NOAA in that their products and services are tailored to meet the needs of the Department of Defense.

A few of the agencies and industry that rely on SEC services:

1. U.S. power grid infrastructure

2. Major airlines and other aviation groups

3. Department of Transportation (especially GPS users)

4. NASA human space flight activities

5. Satellite launch and on-orbit operations

6. HAM Operators and other communications groups

7. DoD

8. Commercial and public users (more than a million hits per day on SEC web sites)

So, lets talk a little about space weather. I will provide some definitions and explanations:

Solar storms describe changes occurring in the space environment which can affect Earth. These changes generally occur due to eruptions on the Sun known as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Solar storms are also a result of changes in the continuous flow of solar particles and magnetic fields from the sun known as solar wind.

Like weather on Earth, there are several different types of solar storms. Space weather forecasters are responsible for predicting these storms. I will now address the three primary types of space weather storms:

1. Solar flares

2. Radiation storms, and

3. Geomagnetic storms

Solar flares are intense, temporary releases of energy on the Sun. They typically occur in active regions on the Sun. Active regions are localized areas of the sun that typically contain enhanced magnetic fields and sunspots. Flares are seen as very bright areas on the Sun in optical wavelengths and as bursts of noise at X-ray and radio wavelengths; they can last from minutes to hours.

Flares are our solar system's largest explosive events which can be equivalent to approximately 40 billion Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. The primary energy source for flares appears to be the tearing and reconnection of strong magnetic fields. They radiate throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays to x-rays, through visible light out to kilometer-long radio waves.

Radiation Storms are typically associated with large solar flares. They can affect Earth within 30 minutes of a major flare's peak. During such an event, Earth is showered with energetic solar particles (primarily protons) released from the flare site.

Some of these particles spiral down Earth's magnetic field lines, penetrating the upper layers of our atmosphere where they may produce a significant increase in the radiation environment. The major storms only occur about 3-5 times per 11-year solar cycle.

Geomagnetic Storms occur one to four days after a flare or other eruption on the Sun. A coronal mass ejection (CME) is usually associated with a large flare. A CME is a cloud of solar material and magnetic fields that lifts off the Sun and moves at a rate of about one to five million mph. When they reach Earth, they buffet Earths magnetic field, which results in a geomagnetic storm. It is these geomagnetic storms that produce the beautiful aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights).

It is important to know that these solar storms typically occur during "solar maximum." The Sun undergoes an 11-year cycle where the polarities of the north and south poles reverse. We usually see most of the solar storms during a 4-6 year period that we refer to as solar maximum. However, large solar storms can occur at any stage of the solar cycle. Right now we are very close to solar minimum. The next maximum is expected to be 2010-2011.

So why do we care???

We rely more and more on systems that are vulnerable to space weather. Our dependence on space-based technology is growing at incredible rate. Applications for GPS are emerging daily. Increased growth and use of the electric power grid has made it more susceptible to solar storms.

I will give you some examples:

Geomagnetic storms induce electrical current that can have significant impact on electrical transmission equipment. Electric power companies have procedures in place to mitigate the impact of geomagnetic storms. In a worse-case scenario, a geomagnetic storm can result in a widespread blackout.

John Kappenman of Metatech Corp. testified in Congress in Oct. 2003, that "Depending on the morphology of the geomagnetic disturbance, it would be conceivable that a power blackout could readily impact areas and populations larger than those of the August 14, 2003 blackout."

On March 13, 1989, in Montreal, Quebec, 6 million people were without commercial electric power for 9 hours as a result of a huge geomagnetic storm. As recently as October 2003, power blackouts in Sweden, and significant transformer damage in South Africa were attributed to geomagnetic storms.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory indicated that a geomagnetic storm slightly more severe than the March 1989 storm could result in $36 billion loss in gross domestic product. This study did not include the potential impact on critical services such as transportation, fire protection, and public security.

Solar storms can also have significant impacts on the satellites we have come to rely on for everyday activities. Many satellites or instruments onboard satellites have been impacted by space weather in recent years.

For the most part, satellites survive through most space weather storms; however, Sten Odenwald of the QSS Corporation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center estimates that a solar superstorm could result in $70 billion in satellite losses (includes collateral economic impacts).

Intelsat announced in January 2005 that its satellite, IS-804, suffered "a sudden and unexpected electrical power system anomaly," which rendered the satellite totally and permanently unusable. An investigation into this failure found that space weather was the culprit. The satellite failure caused some disruptions to customers in its South Pacific coverage area; the island of American Samoa lost most of its communications services because of the failure. Intelsat took a $73 million charge to write off the value of the satellite.

Solar storms impact communications too. Impacts to HF communications can be significant, resulting in degraded or impossible HF operations for hours, even days. Emergency response teams relying on HF communications can be impacted by solar storms. Communications satellite can also be impacted.

Radiation storms create a concern for passengers and crew of airlines, especially those flying the polar routes. Major airlines reroute flights away from the poles during big radiation storms. NASA too is concerned about the effects of solar radiation on astronauts. The solar radiation concern will be considerably greater when we do manned missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Many agencies relying on high-precision GPS (global positioning system) are familiar with the impact of solar storms on GPS accuracy. GPS errors can exceed 50 meters during the most intense storms. This is very significant to surveying and navigational systems.

Technology is evolving at an incredible rate, especially our space-based technology. Many of these systems are vulnerable to hazardous space weather. The health of this Nations technological infrastructure will depend heavily on our understanding of the space environment and our ability to predict hazardous solar storms.

SEC has a free space weather alert and warning subscription system. If you are interested, you can sign up at http://www.sec.noaa.gov/index.html and select "Email Products" on the left side of the screen.

Please feel free to contact us at any time. The contact information is 303-497-7492, or [email protected]. Joe Kunches can be contacted at 303-497-5275, or [email protected]. I will be happy to address your questions and comments this afternoon, and turn the floor back over to our Moderator to start us off.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Bill. We will now turn to questions from our audience. Very interesting information.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Joe Iverson: How vulnerable are electric generators on earth? Can we do anything to protect them from these problems?

Bill Murtagh: Transformers are vulnerable and power companies have procedures in place to mitigate the effects of geomagnetic storms. The key is to give them enough warning lead time.

Joe Sukaskas: You have mentioned some of the effects that space weather can cause - how can space weather be forecast (particularly if some of those effects travel at virtually the speed of light)?

Bill Murtagh: Space weather forecasters analyze solar imagery on a 24 hour basis looking for indication of a possible eruption. Radiation and geomagnetic storms take longer to arrive (hours to days) so typically we can get lead time on those types of storms. Solar flares are a different story. We recognize the potential for a solar flare, but it will typically occur without any lead time. The Earth is the detector of the solar flare. The best we can do here is probability for a flare to occur.

Paul Holtzclaw: I may have missed it earlier. Do the storms create a somewhat of an EMP or are they something that primarily affects satellites? Can you reiterate the general effects of the storms, please? Electrical, Atmospheric, etc.

Bill Murtagh: You have a pulse like effect with solar flares that can disrupt communication quickly; radiation storms can be similar, however they vary from event to event. Geomagnetic storms are slower to evolve, geomagnetic storms induce currents on the surface of the Earth that can impact power grids.

Rick Tobin: The X-Class Flare in mid-July (the Bastille Day event) was of some concern, but I heard little or nothing about it on the "general" news. If we had been hit directly with that one, how serious do you think the damage might have been to our existing satellite fleet? (You might have to discuss the Flare Intensity Model, but our audience might find that useful as we use intensity standards for quakes, hurricanes and tornadoes.)

Bill Murtagh: You are obviously familiar with solar activity. The event referred to is the big flare on 14 July 2000 - The Bastille Day flare.

On the NOAA Space Weather Scales, this solar storm resulted in a Category 3 (Strong) radio blackout; a Category 4 (Severe) radiation storm; and a Category 5 (Extreme) geomagnetic storm. There were some significant impacts. The electric power grid along the east coast experienced widespread capacitor bank trips, and some locations experienced transformer damage. The Japanese ASCA satellite went into safe mode and was lost; the spacecraft operators were unable to recover it.

Lots of GPS position errors were also reported. The damage might have been greater to the power grid if the geomagnetic storm had occurred during peak operating hours (it occurred on a Saturday). The power grid is most vulnerable when the storm occurs during peak load times (e.g., hot summer weekday). I should point out that though this geomagnetic storm was intense, it would not make the Top 20 list of largest geomagnetic storms.

Joe Sukaskas: If solar activity can disrupt GPS services, to what extent could they disrupt telephone networks that rely on GPS timing signals for synchronization?

Bill Murtagh: Joe that is a good question. It is true GPS is used for timing for telecommunications; however, it is my understanding that they have backups in place, such as LORAN, if GPS is unavailable for a short time.

Fernando De Guzman: I am physically at the EOC in Hialeah, FL, and a coordinator for our OEM Team at the Fire Dept. We have eight satellite cities who report here during this time of the year when activated, and serve our 300,000 Hialeah Residents. NOAA is a vital part of summertime activities, and my question to Bill and Joe is the following: How can I incorporate your wisdom into my practical survival, maintenance, and mitigation practices? What do you suggest I look into to help me during our usually active hurricane season? How can space weather be incorporated into planning, warning, etc.?

Bill Murtagh: During emergency situations if communications are unavailable one culprit could be space weather, so investigate space weather as a source prior to troubleshooting systems equipment, systems etc. If you use GPS for positioning, check space weather prior to troubleshooting.

Sernell: Bill, please talk a bit about the communications that you send during an event, beyond the e-mail list. Anything more along the lines of the weather alert system?

Bill Murtagh: Our alerts go out through the NOAA weather wire, fax, pagers, e-mail, and cell phone services. We have the product subscription service where you can sign up for space weather alerts and warnings and it is FREE! See http://www.sec.noaa.gov/index.html and select "Email Products" on the left side of the screen.

Paul: What back up communication system is recommended during a solar flare/storm event?

Bill Murtagh: Paul, if you are using HF communications you can use SATCOM if available. Typically HF communications is the most affected mode of communications during solar storms. Satellite communications, although vulnerable, are typically more reliable. Also, you can use higher frequencies into the VHF range.

Avagene Moore: When I was in Boulder you told us about the earliest discovery of sun flares (if I am using the correct term). Could you share that briefly with our audience?

Bill Murtagh: Actual sunspot observations date back 2000 years to the Chinese. There are actually sunspot drawings done by Galileo in the Vatican archives. The first actual observation of a solar flare was by British scientist Dr Carrington. That particular flare disrupted telegraph communications around the world, and actually resulted in fires at some telegraph stations. This occurred in 1859.

Joe Sukaskas: Are there any long-term trends in solar activity?

Bill Murtagh: The past five solar cycles have been more intense than the previous five. There are some predictions that the next solar maximum will be 30 to 50% larger than the past cycle, and the maximum is expected in the next 3 - 5 years from now.

Avagene Moore: Bill, do you see a connection in these intense trends and that of global warming? (Although this is a debatable issue.)

Bill Murtagh: This is a very controversial subject as you might guess. There are lots of studies that suggest climate is impacted by solar cycles. Other than being controversial at this point, the jury is still out.

Ed Kostiuk: Bill, can you tell us why this might occur? You may have answered it with Avagene's question!

Bill Murtagh: Satellite data show that the Sun varies in its luminosity by 0.1% from solar minimum to solar maximum. The relevant question is how does that level of variability impact the Earth and its climate?

Fernando De Guzman: Do you feel our Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan and our current City Hurricane Preparedness Guidelines should have an addendum using solar activity Issues?

Bill Murtagh: Because of the increased vulnerability of the technology that we depend on, it would seem reasonable to include space weather in the documentation for emergency managers. As we stated earlier, space weather is something that should be checked when problems arise with communications, GPS, and other systems dependent on satellite technology.


Avagene Moore: Thank you, Bill and Joe. We greatly appreciate your effort and time on our behalf and wish you continued success in your work. If any of you travel to the Boulder area, I highly recommend the tour of the Space Environment Center. Bill and staff are most gracious hosts and do a splendid job.

Bill Murtagh: Thank you and as Avagene suggested you are more than welcome to visit us at the Center anytime.

Avagene Moore: If you are not currently on our mailing list, and would like to get program announcements and notices of transcript availability, please see the Subscribe link on our home page.

We have two new EIIP Partners to announce today -- the first is Iowa - Skywarn.org, http://www.Iowa-Skywarn.org; the Point of Contact is Chris Bergeson, President. We also welcome Excalibur Associates, Inc., www.ExcaliburAssociates.com; Robert A. Fitton, Vice President for Government Services, is the POC to the EIIP. Please check out the Web sites of our new Partners. If you are interested in becoming an EIIP Partner, please see the "Partnership for You" link on the EIIP Virtual Forum homepage http://www.emforum.org .

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We especially appreciate our audience! Before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Bill and Joe for a fine job. The EIIP Virtual Forum is adjourned!