THE SOCIETAL CONTEXT

As evidenced in both ancient legend and the historical record, human activities, institutions, and technologies have always been prey to the extremes of weather—to droughts and floods, ice storms and blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes. Around the middle of the 19th century, however, society in the developed parts of the world became vulnerable to a different kind of extreme weather as well—to severe disturbances of the upper atmosphere and the near-Earth space environment driven by the magnetic activity of the Sun. Although the nature of the solar-terrestrial connection was not understood at the time, such disturbances were quickly recognized as the culprit behind the widespread disruptions that periodically plagued the newly established and rapidly expanding telegraph networks. During the following century and a half, with the growth of the electric power industry, the development of telephone and radio communications, and a growing dependence on space-based communications and navigation systems, the vulnerability of modern society and its technological infrastructure to space weather has increased dramatically.

The effects of space weather on modern technological systems are well documented in both the technical literature and popular accounts. Most often cited perhaps is the collapse within 90 seconds of northeastern Canada’s Hydro-Québec power grid during the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, which left millions of people without electricity for up to 9 hours. This event exemplifies the dramatic impact that severe space weather can have on a technology upon which modern society in all of its manifold and interconnected activities and functions critically depends.

Nearly two decades have passed since the March 1989 event. During that time, awareness of the risks of severe space weather has increased among the affected industries, mitigation strategies have been developed, new sources of data have become available (e.g., the upstream solar wind measurements from the Advanced Composition Explorer), new models of the space environment have been created, and a national space weather infrastructure has evolved to provide data, alerts, and forecasts to an increasing number of users.

Now, 20 years later and approaching a new interval of increased solar activity, how well equipped are we to manage the effects of space weather? Have recent technological developments made our critical technologies more or less vulnerable? How well do we understand the broader societal and economic impacts of severe space weather events? Are our institutions prepared to cope with the effects of a “space weather Katrina,” a rare, but according to the historical record, not inconceivable eventuality? On May 22 and 23, 2008, a one-and-a-half-day workshop held in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Space Studies Board brought together representatives of industry, the federal government, and the social science community to explore these and related questions. The key themes, ideas, and insights that emerged during the presentations and discussions are summarized in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report (The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008), which was prepared by the Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events: A Workshop. The present document is an expanded summary of that report.



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 EXTENDED SUMMARY THE SOCIETAL CONTEXT As evidenced in both ancient legend and the historical record, human activities, institu- tions, and technologies have always been prey to the extremes of weather—to droughts and floods, ice storms and blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes. Around the middle of the 19th century, however, society in the developed parts of the world became vulnerable to a differ- ent kind of extreme weather as well—to severe disturbances of the upper atmosphere and the near-Earth space environment driven by the magnetic activity of the Sun. Although the nature of the solar-terrestrial connection was not understood at the time, such disturbances were quickly recognized as the culprit behind the widespread disruptions that periodically plagued the newly established and rapidly expanding telegraph networks. During the following cen- tury and a half, with the growth of the electric power industry, the development of telephone and radio communications, and a growing dependence on space-based communications and navigation systems, the vulnerability of modern society and its technological infrastructure to space weather has increased dramatically. The effects of space weather on modern technological systems are well documented in both the technical literature and popular accounts. Most often cited perhaps is the collapse within 90 seconds of northeastern Canada’s hydro-Québec power grid during the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, which left millions of people without electricity for up to 9 hours. This event exemplifies the dramatic impact that severe space weather can have on a technology upon which modern society in all of its manifold and interconnected activities and functions critically depends. Nearly two decades have passed since the March 1989 event. During that time, awareness of the risks of severe space weather has increased among the affected industries, mitigation strategies have been developed, new sources of data have become available (e.g., the upstream solar wind measurements from the Advanced Composition Explorer), new models of the space environment have been created, and a national space weather infrastructure has evolved to provide data, alerts, and forecasts to an increasing number of users. Now, 20 years later and approaching a new interval of increased solar activity, how well equipped are we to manage the effects of space weather? have recent technological developments made our critical technologies more or less vulnerable? how well do we understand the broader societal and economic impacts of severe space weather events? Are our institutions prepared to cope with the effects of a “space weather Katrina,” a rare, but according to the historical record, not inconceivable eventuality? On May 22 and 23, 2008, a one-and-a-half-day workshop held in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Space Stud- ies Board brought together representatives of industry, the federal government, and the social science community to explore these and related questions. The key themes, ideas, and insights that emerged during the presentations and discussions are summarized in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report (The National Acad- emies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008), which was prepared by the Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events: A Workshop. The present document is an expanded summary of that report.