By Michael Kuhne | November 11, 2015 | AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
In the late summer of 1859, an extreme geomagnetic storm bombarded the planet, igniting the ghostly, emerald lights of the aurora across skies as far south as Cuba.
These powerful solar eruptions of magnetized plasma hitting the Earth caused telegraph wires to spark, disabled communications and set fire to several telegraph offices, according to NASA.
In the modern world, the threat of space weather is far greater as storms like the Carrington Event of 1859 pose a risk to interconnected power grids, airline operations, satellites and communications networks across the globe.
"The overall goal is to ensure that the nation is prepared to predict, mitigate and respond to an extreme space weather event such as a large-scale CME [Coronal Mass Ejection] like the 1859 event," Thomas Berger said, referring to a new multi-agency initiative launched by the Obama Administration to help prepare the country for the looming threat of extreme geomagnetic storms.
Berger is the director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, and has been working in the field of astrophysics and solar physics for more than 20 years.
The National Space Weather Action Plan and National Space Weather Strategy were unveiled in late October under the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The federal initiative includes 13 agencies and seven departments of the federal government.
"It is important to realize that smaller space weather events can also cause chronic damage to infrastructure," Berger added. "In the course of preparing for the extreme event, the nation will also be better prepared to deal with the more frequent, but more chronic space weather events."
One of the greatest threats to the general public resulting from solar storms is the disruption of electrical infrastructure.
In 2012, Earth experienced a near miss of a storm that could have been near the magnitude of the 1859 event, and in March 1989, a geomagnetic storm left nearly 6 million people without power for more than nine hours in Quebec, Canada.
"In some worst case scenarios, the damage could be extensive and take weeks to months to fully recover from," Berger said.
The primary agencies involved in the response, mitigation and forecasting elements of the new plan include the Department of Homeland Security (FEMA) and the Department of Commerce housing NOAA and the National Weather Service.
In the case of long-term power outages, FEMA would respond to affected areas like they would for any other power outage, but the impact could still be devastating, he said.
"One of the most pessimistic views and estimates was produced by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008," Berger said. "It has numbers in the $1- to 2-trillion range with full recovery taking 4-10 years."
The cost would be nearly 20 times that of the damages inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.
When a geomagnetic storm interacts with the Earth's magnetic field, it drastically changes the planet's magnetosphere, and in turn generates powerful electric currents in the ionosphere that are thousands and thousands of amps, Berger said.
These geomagnetic-induced currents are mirrored in the ground, where critical electrical infrastructure is grounded. The magnitude of these storms are rated on a scale similar to tornadoes and hurricanes at G-1 through G-5, with the latter being the highest magnitude.
"One of the difficulties we face is that we have only about 150 years of records of solar storms and only a few decades of modern space-based measurements of solar storms," he said.
"We really can't say that we know for sure the maximum magnitude the sun is capable of producing in terms of extreme eruptions. But if we take the Carrington event as the prototypical event, then it could potentially damage the Extra-High-Voltage (EHV) power distribution system in the U.S."
Part of the U.S. mitigation efforts being coordinated under the new national strategy is to install equipment that would block the damaging DC currents from getting into the system, he added.
"The best-case scenario, that we are trying to work towards, is that there is no damage to the grid," he said.
With winter on the way, power outages, especially in situations of extreme heat and cold, can also lead to greater problems. Preparedness can provide safety and security in the time before agencies like FEMA mobilize their relief efforts in an emergency situation.
In addition to mitigating the effects of solar storms, there is still much to be learned about the sun and how to predict the severity of solar storms. With no comprehensive impact models available, measuring the magnitude of an event in advance is still difficult.
NASA and the National Science Foundation are the primary agencies leading the plan's research improvements. The Department of Defense is also involved, along with the SWPC and the U.S. Air Force 557th Weather Wing, who are coordinating the forecasting and model development efforts.
"We need to better understand how the sun generates its magnetic field, how it cycles over the 10- to 13-year cycle, and how it erupts in the form of massive flares and coronal mass ejections," Berger said.
"Right now, we are somewhat akin to earthquake or volcano eruption in our ability to predict when a given sunspot active region will erupt. We can see it getting more and more magnetically complex, but we can't tell you when it will blow with any accuracy at all."
Even after an eruption is observed, knowing just how powerful it will be cannot be predicted until it's about 1 million miles away from Earth.
"All we can do now is send out watches and warnings when we see an eruption and then wait until it does or doesn't hit our 'tsunami buoy in space' [satellite] at the L1 orbit. Once the CME passes the L1 buoy, we know with more confidence how strong the resulting geomagnetic storm will be," Berger said.
With the ongoing efforts of the federal government and governments around the world, the international preparedness effort will continue to improve understanding and methods for mitigating the space weather threat.
"It's a global problem," Berger said, adding that nations, like the United Kingdom, and power companies around the world are becoming more aware of the potential harm that can be caused by solar storms.