A Trillion Dollar Storm Looms for Earth and It’s Not a Hurricane

This article was originally posted on Forbes.com on October 10, 2019.

Hurricanes can cause widespread damage because they are so expansive, long-lasting, and powerful. Two of the costliest hurricanes on record, Katrina and Harvey, tallied damage numbers close to $125 billion dollars, respectively. As impressive as those numbers sound, what if I told you that there are storms that could cause over $1 trillion (with a “t”) dollars in losses on Earth. These events are not hurricanes or tornadoes, but powerful geomagnetic storms that originate from the Sun. Space weather is a field of science that monitors and predicts them. What is space weather, and how is a trillion dollar storm even possible?

I am an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Georgia. In some of my classes, I often ask, “What is space weather?” There are usually a few seconds of silence and then a brave student will cautiously answer, “Storms or tornadoes on other planets?” I suspect many of you would answer the question the same way. Space weather is actually defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website as “variations in the space environment between the sun and Earth (and throughout the solar system) that can affect technologies in space and on Earth.” Such variations are manifested as coronal mass ejectionssolar flaressolar wind, and other solar particle events. These geomagnetic storms and associated events are scientifically interesting but can be extremely disruptive to society. NOAA actually has a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado that serves a similar function for “solar storms” as the National Hurricane Center does for tropical cyclones.

You might be asking, “So what that the Sun occasionally belches and sneezes solar particles or plasma to Earth?” One of the more benign consequences is the Aurora. There are also more pressing consequencesAccording to NOAA SWPC, here is the “so what?”:

Space weather is a global issue. Unlike terrestrial weather events, like a hurricane, space weather has the potential to impact not only the United States, but wider geographic regions. These complex events can have significant economic consequences and have the potential to negatively affect numerous sectors, including communications, satellite and airline operations, manned space flights, navigation and surveying systems, as well as the electric power grid. NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website

This is why prediction of these “storms” is so important. The science has progressed to the point that lead times can range from minutes to days. In 2017, Robert Coker published an essay entitled “The Trillion Dollar (Solar) Storm” in TheSpaceReview.com. Coker described how NOAA, NASA, and other organizations use advanced satellite systems and models to assess space weather events. He also described the 1859 Carrington Event, the first known modern occurrence of a solar storm impacting Earth. He wrote:

Richard Carrington observed a large flare on the Sun. Then, the next day, auroras could be seen in tropical latitudes and telegraph systems all over the world, starting to shock telegraph operators, operating while unplugged, and igniting the telegraph paper. Robert Coker, TheSpaceReview.com

Photo Courtesy: V2osk via Unsplash
Other Carrington-scale or smaller-sized events have happened over the past century, but this is the statement that caught my eye in the essay:

In May 1921, a storm approximately as strong as the Carrington Event hit the Earth, causing similar damage to telegraph facilities. If the Carrington Event or the 1921 storm happened again today, the damage is estimated to be well over $1 trillion, as many millions of people would be without power or communications for months or even years. Robert Coker

It is tempting to say that this is one scholar exaggerating things. As a weather-climate scientist, I am well-versed in skepticism that people have when scientists mention possibilities that seem too extreme or are outside of a person’s level of experience. However, the projections of trillion dollar scale losses and related concerns are far from isolated. In 2011, the former director of NOAA’s SWPC told journalist Steve Conner in The Independent:

We know the Sun is capable of an 1859 event. It would be shortsighted to say that that’s the worst the Sun could ever do. It can probably do worse than 1859. Dr. Tom Bodgan, former Director of NOAA SWPC

As bad as this all sounds, there are things happening to protect us. In early 2019, the United States Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. The bill, which is making its way through the legislative process, “sets forth provisions concerning improving the ability of the United States to forecast space weather events and mitigate the effects of space weather.” This mandate includes frameworks, observing systems, and advances in predictive capabilities.More recently, NOAA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) unveiled the Geoelectric Field Model. This joint NOAA-USGS model, according to a NOAA press release issued on September 30th, “calculates regional electric field levels in the U.S. caused by disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field from geomagnetic storms.” Such near-real time information on geomagnetic storms like a CME is valuable for assessing impacts on the infrastructure associated with the electrical power grid.

Regional geoelectric field levels for a minor geomagnetic storm on Aug. 5, 2019.  Photo Courtesy NOAA and USGS

Take a moment and think about how you would function for weeks without electrical power, GPS, or air travel.

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One Comment

  1. space…..the final frontier……these are the voyages of the weather channel….it’s ongoing mission….to get better at understanding space weather…..to try and predict when the sun will burp really really loudly…..to boldly care about what no one else really does!! tee hee 🙂

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