The White House is prepping for a single weather event that could cost $2 trillion in damage

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US Develops Plan To Prepare For Space Weather

For our electronic way of life, the sun is a formidable foe, and the White House is taking protective action against it.

On Oct. 29, the White House's National Science and Technology Council released its strategic plan to prepare for an extreme space weather event that could destroy satellites, spacecraft, and vital telecommunications systems.

Many of these electrical systems depend on each other, which is a recipe for disaster.

"These critical infrastructures make up a diverse, complex, interdependent system of systems in which a failure of one could cascade to another," the Council reported in the plan.

A $2 trillion gamble

Every second, the sun shoots bursts of charged subatomic particles, in the form of solar wind, into space at speeds of 1 million miles per hour.

Typically, the solar wind is weak enough that Earth's magnetic field deflects most of it, like in the NASA illustration below:

popscise
(Photo: NASA)

However, if an especially powerful barrage heads our way, it could easily penetrate our magnetic field, fry our electric power systems, and kick us back into the dark ages — all within a matter of hours.

Canada got a minor taste of this back in 1989 when a powerful surge caused the collapse of the Hydro-Québec's electricity transmission system for nine hours. If the storm had been stronger, it might have wiped out a lot more than just Québec electrical transmission.

Though a doomsday-scenario like this hasn't happened yet, experts estimated in 2008 that a single monster solar surge could cause up to $2 trillion in economic damage.

That's almost 10 times more than the damage from any single natural disaster in recorded history. And NASA predicts there is a 12% chance we'll get hit within the next decade.

The White House isn't about to gamble with those odds.

Countdown: 12 to 15 hours warning

While there's not much we can do to prevent a surge of powerful solar radiation from striking Earth, there are steps that we can take to mitigate the damage.

sun
(Photo: NASA)

The first step is predicting when one might hit.

Right now, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center has 24/7 surveillance on the sun for this specific purpose.

"You can think of the sun as kind of like a volcano," Thomas Berger, who is the center's director, told Business Insider. "It's difficult to predict precisely when it's going to erupt, but you can see the signs building up."

Once an eruption occurs, NOAA can give the proper agencies — including airlines, space satellite operators, and power companies — a 12 to 15 hour warning before it strikes Earth, Berge said.

"That's not as much as we'd like to give, and it would be better if we can give more, but right now that's about the best we can do," Berger said, adding that continued solar research by NASA will almost certainly improve future warning systems.

However, simply knowing that a storm is headed your way isn't enough. You also need to predict how strong it is — and that information doesn't come until much later, Berger explained.

Countdown: 15 to 60 minutes to act

To determine storm intensity, NOAA has what Berger calls a space "tsunami buoy," which is currently floating about 932,000 miles from Earth — directly between our planet and the sun — at an invisible point in space called L1, shown below:

681577main1_lagrange points ace 670
(Photo: NASA)

The buoy is called the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). When a storm hits ACE, it gives NOAA a better handle on what exactly we're in for:

"ACE relays that information back at the speed of light, so we have about 15 to 60 minutes before the storm hits the Earth after it hits that buoy satellite," Berger said. "And using that we can say ... 'OK we know exactly how big this thing is and how bad it's going to be.'"

ACE is now 17 years old and will soon be replaced by the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, which will serve as America's primary warning system for solar storms.

Rallying help in America and beyond

In their report, the White House calls upon two dozen national departments, agencies, and service branches to reach a number of benchmarks within the next one to two years.

These benchmarks are designed to address actions like "creating engineering standards, developing vulnerability assessments, establishing decision points and thresholds for action, understanding risk, developing more-effective mitigation procedures and practices, and enhancing response and recovery planning," according to the report.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with the Department of Energy, have been given 120 days (from the strategy plan's publication date) to develop an "all-hazard Power Outage Incident Annex" that will include steps to respond and recover from an extreme solar surge, if one strikes.

America isn't the only one taking steps. An extreme solar event could affect the entire globe, which is why the European Space Agency (ESA) is now working with scientists across 14 European countries on developing a warning network, they reported on Nov. 5.

"The development of space-weather precursor services in Europe is a growing success, and also promises commercial opportunities that we could not foresee just a few years ago," said Juha-Pekka Luntama, ESA's space weather manager, in an ESA press release.

All of these efforts are great news because Earth is the only home we've got.

Click through to see more photos of solar flares:

9 PHOTOS
Solar flares (the sun)
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The White House is prepping for a single weather event that could cost $2 trillion in damage
The sun emitted a significant solar flare, peaking at 7:28 p.m. EST on Dec. 19, 2014. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. (Photo via NASA/SDO)

On Feb. 24, 2014, the sun emitted a significant solar flare, peaking at 7:49 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which keeps a constant watch on the sun, captured images of the event. These SDO images from 7:25 p.m. EST on Feb. 24 show the first moments of this X-class flare in different wavelengths of light -- seen as the bright spot that appears on the left limb of the sun. Hot solar material can be seen hovering above the active region in the sun's atmosphere, the corona.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation, appearing as giant flashes of light in the SDO images. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. (Photo via NASA/SDO)

This Monday, Jan. 12, 2015 photo provided by NASA shows the first notable solar flare of the year, as observed from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 11:24 p.m. EST on Monday. NASAâs Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is a NASA mission which has been observing the sun since 2010. (AP Photo/NASA)
The bright flash of an X1.6-class flare can be seen on the right side of the sun in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. This image shows extreme ultraviolet light of 131 Angstroms, which highlights the intensely hot material of a flare and which is typically colorized in teal. (Photo via NASA/SDO)
On Oct. 25, 2014, the sun emitted its fifth substantial flare since Oct.19. This flare was classified as an X1-class flare and it peaked at 1:08 p.m. EDT, as seen as a bright flash of light in this image from NASA's SDO. The image shows extreme ultraviolet light in the 131-angstrom wavelength, which highlights the intensely hot material in a flare and which is typically colorized in teal. (Photo via NASA/SDO)
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an X2.0-class solar flare bursting off the lower right side of the sun on Oct. 27, 2014. The image shows a blend of extreme ultraviolet light with wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms. (Photo via NASA/SDO)

The bright flash of an M-class flare is seen exploding on the left side of the sun in this image from Nov. 5, 2014. The image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light that was colorized in red and gold. (Photo via NASA/SDO)

On Jan. 27, 2012, a large X-class flare erupted from an active region near the solar west limb. X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events. Seen here is an image of the flare captured by the X-ray telescope on Hinode. This image shows an emission from plasma heated to greater than eight million degrees during the energy release process of the flare. (Photo via JAXA/Hinode)
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