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The Small Agency Trying to Prevent Catastrophic Solar Storms

FOIA'ed documents reveal the US Geological Survey fighting for a budget increase.

by Rachel Pick
Nov 23 2015, 7:16pm

Photo: Júlio Boaro/Flickr

In case you weren't worried about enough things already, there's a lurking threat to the stability of modern civilization that you may have never even considered: solar storms, which can disrupt the Earth's geomagnetic field and cause massive power outages.

According to research by the US Geological Survey released due to a Freedom of Information Act request and published on governmentattic.org, we need to be doing a lot more to protect ourselves from the potential harm caused by these geomagnetic disruptions.

The USGS's collected research from 2012-2015 regarding "Risks of Geomagnetic Storms to the Nation" includes analysis of the impacts of past solar storms, maps showing areas of high conductivity relative to the rest of the country, and proposed improvements to the USGS Geomagnetism Program, which monitors the geomagnetic field.

To better protect us from the impact of a giant solar storm, the USGS needs to better understand the phenomenon, and they're requesting money for land surveys, research grants, and new observatories, the report concludes.

A map showing the potential paths of geomagnetically induced currents in the United States.

Image: USGS

A geomagnetic storm, or a disruption of the Earth's magnetic field, is caused by coronal mass ejections from the Sun's surface. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are a release of charged gas plasma, usually caused by solar flares.

In order to affect electrical systems on Earth, a coronal mass ejection has to be A) pointed at the Earth and B) enormously powerful, but it's happened before. Hypothetically, a large enough CME could cause a geomagnetic storm large enough to knock out power for months or more.

The last time a massive geomagnetic storm hit Earth was in 1859. Called the Carrington Event, it damaged the growing telegraph network and started fires. A similar storm in the present day would be infinitely more disastrous, because of our complete dependence on electricity. Storms in 1989 and 2003 damaged power grids in Quebec, South Africa, Sweden, and Scotland—these storms being much smaller than the one that hit in 1859.

So although it might sound a little out there on paper, it's not at all absurd that the government would want to look into possible methods of monitoring and controlling the threat posed by geomagnetic storms. In fact, some experts on the subject think we're not doing nearly enough as it stands: A truly devastating solar storm could cause damage that would take 10 years to repair at a cost of $10 trillion, Aviation Week reported.

The documents released by the USGS shy away from mentioning potential doomsday scenarios, but allow that "geomagnetically induced currents are a risk for US critical infrastructure," and that certain regions are particularly vulnerable due to their geology and natural electric field.

Maps included in the release show that an east coast corridor that covers both New York City and Washington, DC is an especially conductive region.

NASA has an advanced solar dynamics monitoring lab, but while that laboratory has become very good at detecting solar storms, few in government have tried to do anything to shore up our defenses against them. Former Maryland congressional representative Roscoe Bartlett so deeply fears the potential destruction of our already weak electrical infrastructure that he made it a primary concern during his time in office, which only served to earn him the nickname "the oddest congressman." Meanwhile, the USGS seems to be the only part of the government that takes this threat seriously.

Compare the potentially catastrophic costs of a strong solar storm to the proposed 2016 budget for the USGS' Geomagnetism Program. According to one of the released documents, the USGS is requesting $3.6 million next year—and that's after a $1.7 million increase.

Image: USGS Natural Hazards Mission and USGS Energy and Minerals Mission

Congress appears to be fighting the 2016 budget requests.

In the collection of Powerpoints included in the release, the USGS makes a compelling case: it needs more resources, more research, and more money for ground-level monitoring of the magnetic field. The new budget increase seeks to ameliorate some of these needs, but it's still a paltry amount of money to protect us against something so potentially devastating. I'm thinking I should get in better shape and invest in a crossbow. Just in case.