The dark side of the amazing aurora

Note to the Editor: Bob Kolasky is the senior vice president for critical infrastructure at Exiger, a provider of supply chain and third-party risk analysis to the US government and critical infrastructure industries. He is also a senior fellow at the McCrary Institute for Cyber ​​Security and Infrastructure at Auburn University. He previously headed the Cyber ​​Security and Infrastructure Agency’s (CISA) National Risk Management Centre. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.

Attention turned to the sky last weekend as we witnessed the large-scale visual display and epic nature of space. The arrival of the northern lights display, visible over a much wider area than usual, captured the imagination of millions of citizens around the world and flooded social media with posts reveling in the beauty of the aurora.

Bob Kolasky - Department of Homeland Security

Bob Kolasky – Department of Homeland Security

However, the first severe geomagnetic storm watch issued in nearly two decades captured the attention of a large number of homeland security, emergency management and business continuity professionals who wondered if this “big” solar storm was the “big ” in consequential terms. and space weather events that may affect it.

For more than a decade, security professionals across the US government administration and in emergency management and critical infrastructure industries have increasingly focused on the threat of geomagnetic storms – or, in the term many Americans have become accustomed to weather space.

Fueled by energy released from the sun, a geomagnetic storm disrupts the Earth’s magnetic field, which can cause currents that can disrupt or damage systems. A major storm could shut down power and water service, land flights, public transportation systems and shut down gas stations.

A concentrated effort has been made in recent years to strengthen electricity, telecommunications, transport and space infrastructure against the threat of space-weather impacts that could cause long-term degradation of service around critical functions.

That preparation, as well as the way this particular geomagnetic “superstorm” played out, appears to have contributed to the minimal effects felt on the nation’s critical infrastructure over the weekend, although it was reported that the storm power grid operators “busy” maintaining “proper, controlled current .” Other impact reports included global positioning system (GPS) changes detected in the agricultural sector and “degraded radio communications from aviation and marine operators”.

The nation’s resilience efforts, including power system operators who prepare for adverse events and respond quickly if they do occur, are being praised. But although circumstances have subsided this time, we need to be aware of how serious these impacts could be next time and prepare for a more severe space weather event with possible consequences be destructive.

This confirms the need for the new National Security Memorandum on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience (NSM 22) signed by President Joe Biden at the end of April. This policy reinforced the importance of joint public-private collaboration to strengthen the nation’s critical infrastructure in a risk-based manner and use infrastructure investments and regulatory requirements to improve security and resilience.

Among the risks that drive the need for NSM 22 are the risks associated with geomagnetic events, where bursts of energy from the sun produce currents that can severely affect critical infrastructure systems. Of particular concern to policy makers are the so-called cascading effects that space weather could create.

Damage to a satellite system, for example, degrades real-time navigation capability, which can have a disproportionate impact on transportation systems (especially aviation). Or the spiraling effect of a geomagnetic storm can cause components of the electrical grid’s core infrastructure to become overwhelmed, causing parts of the entire grid to shut down in a way that is difficult to recover from and cause long-term power impacts that they influence. the functioning of water systems and hospitals.

Both scenarios are realistic, although considered rare, and are therefore often referred to as “low probability, high consequence” events. Resilience planning requires consideration of such events that have little historical precedent but potentially devastating impacts.

Space weather was one of those events, and building resiliency against major impacts is an ongoing priority for the Federal Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force established by the National Science and Technology Council in 2014. .

From 2017 to 2022, I co-chaired this group, with a mandate to develop and implement the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan to guide coordinated efforts between government, the research community and owners and operators infrastructure. These implementation efforts, which emphasized protecting critical infrastructure and information sharing, certainly helped prepare for the space weather events we saw last weekend.

Areas of focus for SOWRM planning efforts included the need to link space weather science to infrastructure risk mitigation efforts, the need to improve space weather forecasting capabilities and the importance of international cooperation in the field of space weather.

Preparedness efforts have been recognized as critical to helping mitigate the effects by improving our response and recovery capabilities. Those activities proved useful before the recent storm, as the storm forecast was widely disseminated to emergency managers and continuity professionals, many of whom relied on it to plan and improve preparedness.

Although this solar storm brought more of a light show than widespread consequences for vital systems, this should not be an excuse for complacency. The reality of low-probability, high-consequence events is that there is always a lot of uncertainty surrounding them, and the next significant geomagnetic storm could have far greater consequences. Providers of critical functions must be vigilant.

And while last weekend’s events were caused by solar activity, there is also the possibility that a future event could be man-made and caused by a weaponized electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, which could happen caused by high-altitude nuclear detonations. There was more concern about EMP earlier this year when information was released about Russian President Vladimir Putin crying about using tactical nuclear weapons in space. Taking the risk of EMP events seriously has been an active policy debate for over 20 years.

However, there is a bipartisan consensus that building resilience against both man-made and naturally occurring geomagnetic EMP events is relevant, and that mitigation efforts are somewhat dual-use. This is helpful given the hybrid risk world in which we live. Dual-use mitigation efforts should continue to be a priority for resilience.

Initiatives that should continue include those to improve the science of the effects on earth of geomagnetic activity (including potential permanent damage to pipelines) and efforts to converted into a more robust infrastructure design – including within the electrical grid and operational technology that powers communication and transport. efforts.

Financial incentives should be implemented to invest in resilience by design to help protect communities from the impacts of space weather. We can also learn from this solar storm and improve public risk communication with a wider range of entities that run our critical infrastructure – including energy, communications and emergency services – that don’t necessarily have continuity programs attached by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. or the ability to rely on formal membership-based information sharing channels, such as Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs).

The government should also consider formally designating space infrastructure as a critical infrastructure sector, which would give additional attention to the resilience of satellite systems — both in space and on the ground — and provide an opportunity to strengthen public-private working relationships with major suppliers space services. Biden did not do so in NSM 22 but left the door open to change that in the future as the president asked for agency recommendations on creating better infrastructure protection. The risks associated with space weather events are a compelling reason for making that designation.

The amazing aurora should remind us of the power of the sun to damage the vital systems we need. Our focus on building resilience to natural and man-made space activities must continue.

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