Space Weather On the Radar Screen

Space Weather On the Radar Screen

Quoting Woody Allen’s famous line — “One path leads to despair, the other to destruction. Let’s hope we choose wisely.” — Dan Baker wrapped up a one-day symposium on how the scientific community and the federal government are dealing with the potentially catastrophic effects of a major space weather event. Dr. Baker heads the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and will head the new National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on Solar and Space Physics.

The comment pretty much captured the mood at the meeting, which was sponsored by the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research. Speaker after speaker emphasized the challenge of getting the attention of the public and policymakers to the potentially catastrophic impacts of such a low probability event.

NASA, NOAA and their international counterparts have many spacecraft designed to study the sun and improve the ability to forecast coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that could disable or destroy satellite systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS) and government and commercial communications satellites, not to mention terrestrial systems like the electric power grid. Dealing with the consequences is another matter. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate emphasized the need to build resiliency into systems that could be disrupted. He also rued the fact that no one is unambiguously in charge of dealing with the impacts of such disruptions.

Dr. Chris Beck, a staff member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that a bill (H.R. 5026) that includes provisions related to protecting the electric power grid from space weather events (“geomagnetic storms” in the language of the bill) is expected to be debated in the House tomorrow.

Overall, the message was that no one in the government is in charge of dealing with the effects of disruptions caused by solar storms. Not only does that need to be fixed, but it is critical for the scientific community to develop better ways to forecast the storms and communicate to policymakers the siginificant harm that could result from them.

The NRC’s Space Studies Board (SSB) published a report last year on the societal and economic impacts of space weather. Dr. Baker chaired that study and is also chair of the SSB’s standing Committee on Solar and Space Physics. SSB Senior Program Officer Art Charo announced at the meeting today that Dr. Baker will chair the new NRC Decadal Survey on Solar and Space Physics, with Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan as co-chair. That report is due on March 31, 2012. Dr. Charo is the study director.

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