The Earth’s most expensive natural disasters on record include earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, but the White House is focused on a far costlier disaster emanating from space.
In November, the White House’s National Science and Technology Council released its National Space Weather Action Plan outlining how the federal government might respond to a solar storm, the term used to describe varying bursts of energy released by the sun.
Comparatively, the most expensive natural disaster to date was an earthquake in Japan in 2011 – the quake that also caused the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plan to fail – that cost approximately $230 billion.
The new plan, authored by a task force consisting of Department of Homeland Security, White House and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials, is pretty clear about the risk solar storms pose.
“These critical infrastructures make up a diverse, complex, interdependent system of systems in which a failure of one could cascade to another,” the report states. “Given the importance of reliable electric power and space-based assets, it is essential that the United States has the ability to protect, mitigate, respond to and recover from the potentially devastating effects of space weather.”
The plan sets benchmarks for space-weather events and calls for improvements in forecasting space-weather phenomena, greater international cooperation and improved assessment modeling.
The plan relies heavily on data NOAA collects from two satellites located 1 million miles away from Earth that act much like an early warning system, relaying data back to scientists on Earth when they detect a solar storm.
The first, the Advanced Composition Explorer, is actually 17 years old and will be phased out and replaced by the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, or DSCOVR, very soon.
DSCOVR is a refrigerator-sized spacecraft launched in February that will give scientists up to an hour’s notice of extreme solar weather, providing higher-quality measurements of solar magnetic storms and solar wind data than ACE.
In October, NOAA took control of DSCOVR from NASA, which launched the satellite, and is optimizing the satellite before it becomes fully operational. The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, which continuously monitors the sun, factors into the action plan as well, providing the initial notification that a solar flare or storm occurs.
That initial warning allows up to a 15-hour window to prepare the Earth’s communication, power and satellite systems in the event of a serious solar storm.
Still, the White House’s action plan is “only the first step,” as the document itself states. The next steps will be involving more domestic and international partners, which will include both industry and other governments.
“The federal government alone cannot effectively prepare the nation for space weather; significant effort must go into engaging the broader community,” the plan states.