Tom Bogdan, the director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colarado, and Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA …they want to get prepared for this one) got together for a little “tabletop” experiment. They simulated what they think would a “worst-case scenario” solar storm. Disaster quickly ensued. This is the public report that came out of the ‘tabletop exercise that FEMA, NOAA, and the MSB performedThe exercise included 2 scenarios in which these were some of the projected outcomes.Managing Critical Disasters in the Transatlantic DomainThe Case of a Geomagnetic StormThe United States (U.S.) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) planned and hosted The Workshop on Managing Critical Disasters in the Transatlantic Domain – The Case of a Geomagnetic Storm in Boulder, Colorado, on February 23-24, 2010. The overarching goals of the Geomagnetic Storm Workshop were to allow senior government officials and representatives of both public and private entities from the U.S., Sweden, and the European Union (EU) to compare and contrast the current plans, policies, and procedures used to prepare for and respond to a widespread disaster in the U.S. and EU. The workshop also provided a means to discuss communications between the U.S. and EU in the event of a catastrophic disaster with Transatlantic implications. http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=4270
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is pleased to have had the opportunity to partner with the European Union, European Commission, Swedish government, U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to discuss readiness for a widespread, catastrophic disaster—a geomagnetic storm. Unlike natural hazards that we have faced in the past, disasters caused by abnormal solar activity could pose a worldwide threat and disrupt energy supplies, air transport, telecommunications, and other critical infrastructure.
The FEMA, MSB, and NOAA planning effort identified the following specific objectives for the senior participants in the Geomagnetic Storm Workshop:• Emphasize supporting transatlantic ties at leadership levels in preparing for and responding to a widespread disaster.
• Improve U.S.-EU systems for communicating during a response to a disaster.
Most of the disruptions caused by space weather storms involve technology. Susceptible technology is quickly growing in use. Satellites, for example, carry weather information, military surveillance, TV and other communications signals, credit card and pager transmissions, navigation data, and cell phone usage. With the rising use of technologies, vulnerability to space weather events has increased dramatically.
Flares are our solar system’s largest explosive events. Earth-directed CMEs pose a grave threat to earth’s technological infrastructure. If a CME impacts earth causing a geomagnetic storm, the rapidly changing geomagnetic field caused by the CME can induce powerful electrical currents that disrupt and disable transformers, capacitors, and other critical equipment leading to the collapse of power grids. On March 13, 1989, in Montreal, Quebec, 6 million people were without commercial electric power for 9 hours as a result of a geomagnetic storm. Some areas in the northeastern U.S. and in Sweden also lost power. Geomagnetic storms also disrupt navigation and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and threatens satellite operations.
The list of consequences grows in proportion to our dependence on burgeoning technological systems. The subtleties of the interactions between the sun and the earth, and between solar particles and delicate instruments, have become factors that affect our well being.
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Significant electric power grid problems occurred, and a massive power fluctuation affected the transmission grid. Within one hour, cascading power outages were reported throughout the eastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. and eastern Canada.
Power stations reported numerous generator step-up transformers and transmission transformers out of commission, with projected replacements and repairs taking weeks and even months. This raised immediate concern of a critical infrastructure collapse with loss of water distribution, sewage disposal, hospital care, phone service, and fuel resupply. Satellite outages were reported, and cell phones experienced significant service disruptions.
Significant problems were also reported in Northern Europe. Power outages were reported in large areas of southern Sweden, Scotland, Northern England, and the upper tip of Northern Europe. The power outage's effects on international air transport and financial markets were widespread.
The extreme geomagnetic storm lasted for 24 hours, ending late on February 26. Full recovery of the U.S. power grid is expected to take six months. Many populated areas are expected to be without power for weeks or months.
Workshop participants highlighted the need to assess the vulnerability of technological systems that could be impacted by space weather conditions. They raised concerns that, in many cases, both the private and public sectors do not fully understand the level of interconnectivity between various infrastructures and therefore do not grasp the extent of the space weather threat.
Page 14Prioritization of Scarce Critical Resources in the International DomainDuring the workshop, participants discussed the prioritization and allocation of scarce critical resources in the aftermath of a severe geomagnetic storm. For example, a geomagnetic storm can destroy large electrical transformers which are expensive and time-consuming to replace. Because of the cost, most electric companies do not keep spare transformers on-hand. Even if an electric company is able to locate spare transformers, transportation and installation would take at least three weeks. New orders for replacement equipment can take up to 18 months or even longer to fulfill. If Sweden, Great Britain, and the United States all suffered transformer damage from a geomagnetic storm, it would be difficult for equipment providers to prioritize which countries should receive replacement parts.
Participants discussed not only the scarcity of equipment, but also the scarcity of technical experts needed to solve major electrical system problems. Individuals with electrical grid expertise have become centralized in a small number of global firms. During a space weather crisis in which electrical grids are compromised in a number of countries, these experts could become over extended in their efforts to restore the system. Additionally, if a crisis strikes, it is reasonable to expect that utility workers will ensure the safety and security of their families before they focus on utility operations.
Population centers have limited food and commodity inventories on hand. Hospital supply systems, for instance, operate on a just-in-time replenishment cycle. Generators are seldom installed and are often intended to be used for a very short period. Major electrical outages would wreck havoc with the supply chain management system for these and other critical supplies. Replenishing these supplies requires operable telecommunications systems, data processing capability, and the fuel to transport shipments.
By definition, high-impact, low-frequency events like solar storms do not occur with sufficient regularity to instill experience-based awareness.