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Congress needs to finalize space weather bill as solar storms pose heightened threat

The COVID-19 pandemic has left us more dependent than ever on advanced information and communication technologies, with many businesses and schools relying on a range of remote services. In this environment, building resilience to potential threats that can disrupt society’s essential daily activities is critical.

For this reason, it is heartening to see Congress advancing legislation to better protect the nation from solar storms that spew millions of tons of charged matter toward Earth. Such space weather events can distort GPS signals, scramble satellite operations, and disable communications and power systems, with serious consequences for our economy and armed services — a particularly major concern as the Pentagon prepares for future space-based conflicts.

Significant space weather events occur every decade or so with far-reaching and destructive consequences. A powerful solar storm in 1989 cut off power to millions of Canadians, and major storms in 2003 affected more than half of Earth-orbiting spacecraft. Just three years ago, solar flares caused radio blackouts for hours during critical emergency response efforts to approaching hurricanes in the Caribbean and nearby regions.

A solar superstorm poses even greater risks. The so-called Carrington Event in 1859, which ignited fires in telegraph offices, would have catastrophic impacts on today’s society, potentially resulting in widespread damage to power grids, communication networks, and other technologies that would take weeks, months, or even years to repair. Even before COVID-19 led to an increased reliance on e-based technologies, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that such an event could result in as much as $2 trillion in damages — or more than 10 times the costs of Hurricane Katrina.

Despite a growing array of advanced satellites that monitor the sun, forecasters cannot accurately predict when a major storm will erupt from the sun and begin its one- to four-day journey toward Earth. Observations provide only limited information about where the storm will hit and its potential for damage until it is within about a half-hour of Earth. This does not leave satellite operators and utility managers with sufficient notice to fully shield vulnerable electronics and power down critical hardware.

To improve its forecasting capability, the nation needs to invest in a new generation of space- and ground-based instruments that can provide continual measurements of magnetic fields throughout the solar atmosphere. These measurements would alert us to conditions that are conducive for storms and help us determine whether an incoming storm will penetrate our atmosphere and target certain regions on Earth, or harmlessly glance off.

Scientists are also working toward more advanced computer models of the sun. One of their primary goals is to stimulate the buildup of energy in twisted magnetic fields within the solar atmosphere, enabling forecasters to predict when the fields will erupt and spew tons of charged particles toward Earth.

Fortunately, Congress is starting to take action on this important issue. The Senate last month unanimously passed legislation to improve scientific understanding and forecasting of space weather. The Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow (PROSWIFT) Act would break down barriers between the nation’s researchers and forecasters, coordinate the efforts of key federal agencies, and establish an integrated strategy across the federal government to address space weather research and observational needs.

This legislation, appropriately, has strong bipartisan support. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) co-sponsored the Senate bill. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) is working with eight co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle to advance the measure.

With just months remaining on the calendar of the current Congress, the House must provide the final passage of this important legislation.

Our solar forecasting capabilities at present are comparable to terrestrial weather prediction before the Second World War when communities had little warning of incoming storms. Since then, government agencies, private companies, and university researchers have collaborated on landmark advances in weather prediction, which have saved countless lives, fostered economic growth, and supported military operations.

We have now arrived at a pivotal moment in forecasting solar storms. At a time when society is more dependent than ever on advanced e-based technologies, the PROSWIFT Act lays out a clear road map for bringing together expertise in government, the private sector, and academia to forecast these damaging events. If Congress and the administration successfully enact the legislation, this predictive capability will provide a critical safeguard for America’s economic competitiveness and national security, and for the business and school technologies that we have all come to rely upon.

Antonio J. Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of 120 colleges and universities focused on research and training in the Earth system sciences. 

Energy and Environment