STORMS CAUSE SIGNIFICANT ECONOMIC AND OTHER IMPACTS ON EARTH
5, 2004 — The impacts and costs associated with meteorological storms
occurring on the Earth’s surface are obvious, but what about those
associated with space
weather? Solar or geomagnetic storms — just like hurricanes,
tornadoes, hail and floods — can cause damage resulting in hundreds
of millions of dollars in economic losses each year.
of Solar Storms
solar storms are often seen from Earth as beautiful lights dancing in
the night sky (i.e., the Northern Lights or aurora
borealis), but looks can be deceiving. In reality, these storms can
carry tremendous power and travel at speeds of as much as 5 million MPH.
Solar storms have been known to knock out satellites,
some power supplies, communications and navigation systems. Many of
these effects are transitory, but they can be very disruptive and potentially
dangerous — both to the systems themselves and the nation’s
economy. Damage to these systems can also result in secondary effects
that can disrupt virtually every major infrastructure dependant on them,
including transportation, security and emergency response systems, telecommunications
and other wireless networks and electronic equipment.
Vulnerability with Advanced Technologies
The costs and impacts associated with solar storms increase as
society becomes more dependant on the high tech innovations that are most
vulnerable to solar storm activity. The added complexity of today's power
grid system and the lack of reserve power within that system makes it
very vulnerable to solar storms. Add to this the ever increasing prevalence
and demand for satellite-based systems and you begin see the potential
catastrophic impacts solar storms can have on today’s modern society.
“Because of this, it is more important now
(than ever) to have the capabilities and resources necessary to monitor,
predict and understand space weather,” says retired Navy Vice Adm.
Conrad C. Lautenbacher,
Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.
research and operational capabilities enable it to help the nation (and
the world) prepare for these storms." Lautenbacher also noted that
the agency’s space weather initiatives are in line with two of its
primary mission goals; to serve society’s needs for weather and
water information and to support the nation’s commerce with information
for safe, efficient and environmentally sound transportation.
NOAA Space Environment Center provides
real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events.
The center collects space weather data from satellites
and ground-based sensors, including:
additional space weather data through cooperation with NASA and the U.S.
Department of Defense. The NOAA
space weather scales were created to communicate to the public the
current and future space weather conditions and their possible impacts
on people and systems. All of these activities help power companies, the
airline industry, spacecraft operators, the communications industry and
emergency officials predict and prepare for the potential damage of solar
events well before they hit the Earth.
of Space Weather Observation
NOAA Chief Economist Rodney F. Weiher and Dr. Thomas J. Teisberg recently
estimated that the economic benefits of providing reliable warnings of
geomagnetic storms to the electric power industry (alone) would be approximately
$450 million over three years (note that this doesn't include any other
impacted industries). This is well above the $100 million cost of a new
operational satellite that would provide such warnings (Teisberg and Weiher,
Impacts on Power Grids and Satellite Systems
The satellite industry and electric power producers have experienced major
financial losses attributed to space weather since the 1980s
The first recorded evidence of space weather effects on technology
was in 1847 (Barlow, 1849). In 1859 a major failure of telegraph systems
in New England and Europe coincided with a large solar flare
et. al., 1859). However, it wasn’t until the HydroQuebec
Power Grid blackout in Quebec, Canada, in March of 1989 that the world
truly realized the extent to which solar storms can impact the economy.
The solar storm induced a nine-hour blackout which affected 6 million
customers and ultimately cost this power company more than $10 million
— putting the cost of this disaster in the same category as hurricanes
and earthquakes (and this does not include the estimated cost to its customers,
which was in the tens — if not hundreds — of millions of dollars)
(Windows to the Universe Team, 2000). Additionally,
Public Service Electric and Gas in New Jersey suffered serious damage
to two of its transformers. It cost PSE&G eight million to replace
the transformers and the cost of replacement energy during the time the
transformers were taken out of service was approximately $16.8 million,
so the net cost for PSE&G was over $24 million. Together, this single
space weather storm cost Hydro Quebec and PSE&G more than $30 million.
Comprehensive real-time protective space weather prediction services could
have significantly reduced damages and costs. Hydro-Quebec’s solution
to the blackout was to install devices that block solar storms created
geomagnetically-induced currents from traveling through its transmission
lines. Unfortunately, this solution is extremely complex and expensive
($1.2 billion) (Quinn, 2000).
It was soon
realized that the key to protecting vulnerable high tech systems is the
ability to forecast solar storms and to take appropriate measures to avoid
(or at least minimize) potential damage before they strike the Earth.
data from new sensors and improved forecast models, NOAA’s SEC forecasters
were able to alert electric power customers 40 minutes before a solar
storm hit the Earth on May 2, 1998. In response, electric power utilities
were able to successfully divert power and increase safety margins on
certain parts of the grid to avoid stress on the power system.
Researchers have found that local electricity prices in the northeast
increase in response to the regionalized effects of solar storms. Specifically,
in research supported by the National Science Foundation, Forbes and St.
Cyr (2004) note that space weather disrupts
the system that transmits the power from where it is generated to where
it is distributed to customers. In examining the determinants of the real-time
electricity price in the market over the period June 1, 2000, through
Dec. 31, 2001, they concluded that solar storms (over this period) increased
the wholesale price of electricity by approximately 3.7 percent or approximately
$500 million over the 19 month sample period.
point out that satellites are even more vulnerable to solar storms than
power grids. Engineers have been forced to use much lighter shielding
materials in order to keep costs down (it costs between $5,000 to $10,000
per pound to launch material into space) (Odenwald,
1999). Space storms don't even have to make a direct hit to harm
a satellite, especially the many new low Earth orbit commercial satellites
(orbiting only a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface). During
heightened solar activity, the atmosphere thickens, increasing atmospheric
friction on LEO objects. In
fact, $500 million in satellite insurance claims from 1994 to 1999 were
the direct or indirect result of space weather (Kunstadter,
2002). Despite this, LEO satellites remain prime orbital
real estate for the latest generations of communication satellite networks.
Although astronauts can minimize radiation storm impacts by retreating
into the shielded chambers of their space station, many other satellites
must be switched to safe mode to survive solar storms.
of major satellites knocked out or damaged by solar storms is long and
- The U.S.
Department of Defense has estimated that disruptions to government satellites
from space weather cost about $100 million a year (Rodgers,
et. al., 2000).
in 1994 and 1997 knocked out three communications satellites (U.S. Telstar
401 and Canada's Anik-E1 and Anik-E2 satellites), which had to be replaced
at a cost of about $200 million each (Chapline,
- The loss
of telephone pager service to 45 million customers in May of 1998 and
military reports of interruptions to high frequency radio communications
during the Gulf War in 1991 have also been attributed to solar storms
(NOAA Hearing, 2003).
are concerned about space weather because it can disrupt navigation,
as well as satellite and ground-based communication systems. During
times of high solar activity, polar routes must be diverted to lower
latitudes in order to avoid human exposure to increased solar radiation
and other related complications. Such flight diversions can cost as
much as $100,000 per flight, and this value does not even take into
account economic loses to passengers (Murtagh,
is becoming extremely reliant on global positioning systems. A one percent
gain in continuity and availability of GPS would be worth $180 million
per year (Rodgers,
et. al., 2000).
2003 Solar Storm
solar storms that impacted the Earth between Oct.
19 to Nov. 7, 2003, further justify the benefits of NOAA space weather
activities and remind the nation that space weather can be hazardous
to Earth and space systems at any time during the 11-year solar cycle.
This storm came as quite a surprise, since it occurred
three-and-a-half years after solar minimum, when things are relatively
quiet on the sun compared to solar
like seeing a hurricane in November rather than August, when you'd typically
expect it," commented Larry Combs, one of the NOAA Space Environment
Center forecasters. “What
also made these storms unusual is that there were two distinct, very intense
geomagnetic storms, which both arrived in just 19 hours from the sun to
the Earth. This ranks them as some of the fastest traveling solar storms
on record and both produced the strongest activity this solar cycle —
extreme or G5 on the NOAA space weather scales." Because
the NOAA Space Environment Center released advanced warnings about an
unusually large solar storm, electrical utilities, airlines and spacecraft
managers were able to take preventive action to minimize disruption of
service — and the economy — due to the storm.
in the last few decades have we truly come to realize and appreciate the
impact space weather can have on the Earth — and the world economy.
Fortunately, many of the adverse effects of the sun's activities can be
neutralized (or at least minimized) with NOAA SEC space weather products
and services. NOAA’s space weather activities have already proven
to be of significant economic value, and that value will only increase
in the future (especially when the NOAA SEC merges with the NOAA National
Weather Service later in 2004).
WEATHER - WHAT IS IT AND WHY DO WE WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT?
is the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights?
GROWING IMPORTANCE OF SPACE WEATHER INFORMATION
Space Environment Center
SPACE WEATHER INSTRUMENTS
geostationary operational environmental satellites
SOLAR STORM DETECTOR SENDING REAL-TIME IMAGES USED TO WARN OF SUN’S
polar-orbiting environmental satellite
space weather scales
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