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Solar Storms: What Do You Do When the Sun Attacks?

It’s tough enough being an emergency manager. On any given day an industrial accident, a flood, a tornado, a major gas leak, an act of terrorism or some other unforeseen event on the planet might take place in your community. You have to be ready for anything that the Earth might throw at you. But what about the sun? You know – that large glowing orb in the sky that warms this, the third rock in its immediate neighborhood, so that life can go about its daily grind?

What if the sun attacks?

As far-fetched as an attack from the sun may sound, this colossal inferno spews massive amounts of radiation in various forms that can have a very direct impact upon life on this planet. This is not science fiction fantasy or an Orson Welles radio script of days gone by. Our planet is literally being attacked by solar flares and storms, and it’s happening right now in the skies above us.

Right now our planet is enduring more than its fair share of solar storms.  Space meteorologists of NOAA’s National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction Center have forecast the years 2012 – 2014 as a prime-time season for extra-aggressive activity by the sun. While solar storms, flares and radiation erupt daily from the sun’s surface, occasional extra large bursts emanating from the sun unleash geomagnetic pulses that can have fatal consequences for technology and our climate on planet Earth.

Orbiting satellites, telecommunications networks, GPS, and cellular coverage and more can be degraded or wiped out as circuitry is fried and rendered useless. Astronauts in orbit, either in the International Space Station or other vehicles, have to take extra precautions on board their space vehicles so that they are not adversely affected by the radiation bursts.

As for life on Earth, besides the complete disruption of our communications capabilities and power grid problems, these geomagnetic bursts can contribute to adverse climate impacts that can cause wildfires and other natural hazards.

It’s for reasons like these that, on top of getting a brief on everything else that is happening in the country weather-wise, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate gets a space weather report every day. Who knew the Weather Channel went that far, but in Fugate’s position and those of his peers around the country, keeping an eye on what is happening in the far off heavens is now part of what they do.

The challenge that Fugate and his fellow emergency managers have is trying to convince skeptical leaders and citizens that a real threat exists when they can’t physically see it coming. It’s easy for anyone to figure out that it’s best to get out of the way when flood waters rise or a tornado is vaporizing everything in its path. You can see it. With a coronal burst or electromagnetic pulse coming from the sun, there is no way a naked human eye can see it coming.

While it may take days, and sometimes merely hours for such a burst from the sun to strike the Earth, the tools and technologies that can forecast it remain in their infancy. Over the past 50 or so years, NASA and NOAA scientists have made tremendous breakthroughs and learned an extraordinary amount by deploying orbiting satellites and sensors around the planet to keep watch for events of these types, but space weather forecasting remains an inexact and unpredictable science. That can be expected when you’re dealing with a huge ball of exploding gas and fire that is more than 150 million kilometers away.

Dealing with inexact and unpredictable science (and events) is at the core of emergency management. Short of participating in the planned demolition of a bridge or some other piece of infrastructure, emergency managers will never know what any given day will bring. It could be a small flood, a fire that takes a city block or two cows at the bottom of a sinkhole in a Florida pasture.

Having the skills that allow you to respond and adapt to those situations and implement solutions is what makes all the difference, even when it’s the sun that is attacking you.

It’s an ability that is about to be tested in the coming days, months, and years, and we’re about to find out how prepared, or rather ill-prepared we are to deal with those situations.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...