Improving space weather forecasting

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Photo by Miriam Espacio | Pexels.com

U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) reintroduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the nation’s ability to predict severe space weather events and mitigate their harmful impacts on Earth.

A severe space weather event, such as a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, has the potential to seriously disrupt the electric power grid, communications networks including cellular phones and GPS, satellites and aircraft operations.

Our economy increasingly relies on our ability to stay connected, whether it’s through the electric grid, cell phones or even air travel,” said Senator Peters. “A worst-case scenario space weather event could cripple vital infrastructure and threaten our national security – and the federal government must be ready in the event of a catastrophe. This bipartisan bill will put the government on the right track to better predict and prepare for a possible disaster.”

“Because space weather may have severe implications for our economic and national security as well as the potential to interrupt the delivery of essential services, it’s important that we prioritize the research and development necessary to reduce the risk and allow our nation to react and recover from these events,” said Senator Gardner.

The Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act directs the federal agencies that study and predict space weather to coordinate with the private sector to assess the potential impacts of space weather on the United States, and determine what new research and technology is needed to improve the ability to forecast space weather events and mitigate potential damage.

The legislation outlines clear roles and responsibilities for those federal agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The bill also directs NOAA to develop plans for backup of aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, the only currently operating satellite providing imagery of space weather that could impact Earth. The bill also directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use space weather research and information to identify critical infrastructure that could be disrupted by space weather.

Space weather events are caused by constantly changing conditions in the Sun’s magnetic fields that create solar flares, which are built up energy released as a burst of radiation, or coronal mass ejections (CME), which are explosions of the Sun’s magnetic fields and ionized gas releasing radiation and energized particles that interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields. This can be observed on Earth as the Northern and Southern lights.

Space weather has the potential to impact infrastructure on Earth and severely disrupt the economy. An estimate by Lloyds of London found that a worst-case scenario space weather event could cost up to $2.6 trillion in lost productivity and impact as many as 40 million people by causing outages or blackouts of electric utilities, disrupting GPS and communication networks and forcing airlines to reroute air traffic.

Peters and Gardner previously introduced the bill in the 115th Congress, where it unanimously passed the Senate. U.S. Representatives Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Mo Brooks (R-AL) will be introducing companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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