“Space weather” can cause cascading collapse across critical human civilization infrastructure, blocking rail transport, aviation, and food delivery

Friday, April 7, 2017
By Paul Martin

by: Rhonda Johansson
Thursday, April 06, 2017

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) warns that extreme space weather can damage critical infrastructure in the European Union (EU). In their new report, researchers at the JRC identified gaps found in current industry and science policies regarding the reduction of risks related to space weather and provided recommendations that would close these gaps. The report is a summary of a summit organized in partnership with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the U.K. Met office, with the support of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held late last year.

Space weather is defined by researchers as a collection of physical processes emitted by the Sun that affect the Earth and surrounding space. The Sun is constantly ejecting energy as flares of electromagnetic radiation. Most of these are in the form of radio waves, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, infrared radiation, and light. The electrically-charged particles travel outward as solar wind, carrying projections of the Sun’s magnetic field with them. Eventually, these particles reach the Earth.

This, scientists say, is where the fun begins. A unique interaction between our planet’s magnetic field and the outer atmosphere take place. Sometimes, extreme space weather can cause large concentrations of energetic particles to collect around the magnetosphere and ionosphere, leading to magnetic variations. These variations can cause beautiful striations in the sky, which we know as auroras. However, beyond the beauty lies a potentially dangerous technological and societal problem.

Cascading effects

A main concern is that communication technology is highly sensitive to space weather. It is recognized that extreme solar flares can disrupt communication infrastructure — even those made from the latest materials. Given how heavily we rely on these channels, there could be havoc or even societal collapse should one of these fail. Critical infrastructure, especially those associated with the receipt and delivery of sensitive global data, should be assessed for sturdiness and viability. Beyond that, new methodologies and tools are needed to determine interdependencies between and among countries. Put simply: a multi-risk governance approach needs to be designed. This would enable coordination between sectors to mitigate the risk of isolation.

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