Skip to content

Keeping an Eye on the Space Weather Forecast

 by Emma McMullan*

Image of solar storm with photos of guest speakers featured in Space Weather Readiness article

On November 7, 2023, the Rethinking Diplomacy Program (RDP)/Space Diplomacy Lab (SDL), in collaboration with the course Space Economics (ECON 390), Duke Cosmology, the Ocean Diplomacy Working Group, and the  Sanford School of Public Policy, welcomed a panel of experts to discuss ongoing domestic and international work to improve resilience to solar storms. Moderated by Dr. Britt Lundgren, associate professor at UNC Asheville’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and Associate Fellow with the Space Diplomacy Lab, the panel featured an in-depth discussion between Dr. Tamara Dickinson, Dr. Jennifer “Jinni” Meehan, and Mr. William “Bill” Murtagh. 

“Space weather over the last decade has emerged as something of great concern around the globe.” Mr. Murtagh, the Program Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), began. Space weather originates from activities on the Sun’s surface, resulting in streams of charged particles, known as the solar wind, traveling to other bodies like the Earth at hundreds of miles per hour. The Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere shield us from most solar wind impacts, leaving people on the ground safe. As our sun reaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, though, space weather events pose a greater threat to critical ground-based and satellite infrastructure.   

Space weather events can impact power grid systems, GPS, satellite-based communications, and more, causing severe societal and economic impacts. Without protections, a severe geomagnetic storm – a type of space weather – could disable a region’s power grid for days, weeks, or even months. However, an extreme weather event causing mass-scale outages has yet to occur. Effective watch programs by the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and cross-sector coordination have allowed actions to mitigate impacts when space weather events occur, protecting critical assets. 

Mr. Murtagh noted that over the last decade, certain events have raised alarms for space weather preparedness. On November 4, 2015, an average space weather event disrupted Swedish Air Traffic Control operations, shutting down Swedish airspace. In the United States, a significant solar flare happened as Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, disrupting plane communications over the Atlantic Ocean, making it difficult to route flights around the storm. As recently as 2022, a prolonged geomagnetic storm caused the loss of 38 SpaceX Starlink satellites, preventing the satellites from entering a complete orbit. Since then, the United States has worked to improve the communication of space weather emergencies across US agencies, private sector partners, and international partners to mitigate future impacts. 

Mr. Murtagh made clear that “this is not a US concern alone.” Currently, the SWPC directly supports the State Department to ensure all US Consulates and Embassies are aware of space weather risks in their region. The multi-regional and global nature of space weather impacts makes it critical to continue addressing space weather preparedness globally and improving collaborative abilities between countries.   

Dr. Meehan, National Space Weather Program Manager for the Analyze, Forecast and Support Office at the National Weather Service (NWS) and Executive Secretary of the White House Space Weather Operations, Research, and Mitigation (SWORM) Subcommittee, affirmed the importance of establishing policy initiatives to make the US and its partner space weather-ready nations. In 2015, the first cohesive all-of-government strategy defined six high-level goals to understand, prepare, and mitigate the effects of space weather to facilitate operational readiness and improve decision-making in the face of weather events. Shortly following this, in 2016, The Obama Administration issued Executive Order 13744, which defined agency roles and directed action in response to space weather events. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 strengthened these efforts by mandating the Secretary of Defense to ensure timely operational space weather services that may affect national security infrastructure and operations.  

In 2019, the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan was revisited to ensure Federal policies and procedures that will improve space weather readiness. Executive Order 13865 then simultaneously defined whole-of-government policies for facing geomagnetic storms. The United Nations Civil Aviation Organization also implemented a space weather information service for global aviation later in the same year. 

Similar commitments have followed, strengthening the United States’ coordinated response to space weather events. The White House Space Weather Operations, Research, and Mitigation (SWORM) Subcommittee is a cross-agency subcommittee of chief federal authorities responding directly to space weather events. As Chair of the White House Space Weather Advisory Group (SWAG), Dr. Dickinson advises SWORM to advance the US space weather enterprise, prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from space weather phenomena, and develop and integrate a coordinate strategy for space weather issues. SWAG also conducts a comprehensive user needs strategy of space weather products. 

SWAG’s review of SWORM found the subcommittee has made significant progress over the last nine years to build awareness to increase space weather resilience. As the front of technology continues to evolve, though, and the needs to protect infrastructure change, SWORM’s policies must also evolve. Dr. Dickinson’s group highlighted the need for funding to better support many of these space weather preparedness mandates, as many were approved without appropriations. Additionally, SWAG urged SWORM to protect space weather sensors from spectrum interference. Space weather sensors needed for accurate prediction of space weather events are highly vulnerable to electromagnetic emissions from neighboring satellites. Dr. Dickinson urged for greater protections to be given to the sensors in order for weather monitoring capabilities to continue uninterrupted. SWAG’s full report of findings and recommendations can be read here. View the full webinar on our YouTube channel.

*Emma McMullan is a National Science Policy Network (NSPN) Science Diplomacy Fellow

RDP Logo_blue with square