As I write this, a meeting is underway here in Washington DC – a two-day workshop entitled satellite navigation and space weather: understanding the vulnerabilities & building resilience.
Can you feel your imagination soar?
Perhaps sixty men and women – max – are participating. Some are scientists, some engineers. Some work for U.S. federal agencies, others at universities, others represent private enterprise. A few have come from Europe. Any more interested now?
Still not so much? Maybe you’re thinking: while these sixty people have been thus occupied, the world’s seven billion have engaged in other, wholly unrelated pursuits. That a few other meetings are also underway worldwide. In fact, thousands of meetings this size or larger, maybe even millions (after all, seven billion is a very large number), on every subject imaginable: war, peace, food, water, the economy, the environment. And the 33 trapped Chilean miners have been rescued.
[The miners have made it back to the Earth’s surface? A nightmarish experience behind them? A world of new possibilities ahead? Now there’s something to celebrate! And we should. Makes today special for all of us.]
But back to the DC workshop. You and I should also wish its members well. We should pray for them too.
To see why, let’s start with another question. Have you ever heard of Richard Carrington? Or here’s one…does the year 1859 hold any special significance for you? Probably not.
But Google his name and this year, check out some of the sources, and you’ll enter a new arena – at least one that’s new for most of us – the world of space weather. In that year the Earth experienced what some think might have been the most powerful solar storm ever recorded. Carrington was the first to realize what was happening. He was looking at sunspots precisely as the flare occurred. This helped him make the link to the auroral activity that began within a day. But this wasn’t just any auroral activity. The night skies provided enough light to read newspapers. Colorado miners in Colorado woke up in the small hours of the morning, thinking it was daybreak, and cooked breakfast well before sunrise. Aurorae were visible across the tropics. And a new technology, the telegraph – the Victorian Internet – proved unexpectedly vulnerable. The ionospheric storm sent huge voltages racing through the world’s spanking new telegraph lines. Sparks flew and paper fires started in some of the offices. Telegraph operators at their stations were jolted by electrical shocks. Even when the station batteries were disconnected, the ionospherically induced currents in the lines allowed message transmission. The disruption continued for days.
Wait a minute, though! This event sounds rare.
You bet. Like those Richter-scale 8.0 New Madrid earthquakes that shook the central United States in 1812. Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans. And, just as in the central United States we now run natural-gas pipelines through the New Madrid area, and as in New Orleans we had encouraged thousands of people to live below sea level behind the levees, we’re building our national and global vulnerability to space weather.
Since 1859, we’ve seen no more than one or two storms that might have approached the 1859 event in severity. But in that time span, we’ve grown progressively more dependent on regional electrical grids and all manner of telecommunication – starting with radio, and then TV, then the internet and 3G cellphones. We’ve filled nearby space with satellites. They directly bear the brunt of solar weather. At the same time we rely on them. They play a vital role in telecommunications, weather forecasting, and they also underpin the Global Positioning System or GPS.
It’s this latter technology that concerns this workshop. GPS origins date back about thirty years, when it began to serve needs of the world’s militaries. Since the 1990’s, it’s been available more broadly. Today, just fifteen years later, millions of civilian users – perhaps as many as a billion – depend utterly on a range of positioning, navigation, and timing services, for everything from aviation and surface transportation, to prospecting for natural resources, to all those offshore Gulf oil operations (anyone noticed any headlines there over the past six months?), to speed-of-light financial transactions in the world’s major stock markets (remember that freak financial market plunge on May 6th of this year? It seems to have resulted from instabilities in robo-trading, where millisecond-timing accuracies are required). Some golf courses have GPS in the carts. You get the idea. GPS dependence is everywhere.
So the workshop participants are gathered here to address three questions. First, what risks does solar weather pose to GPS? What risks do potential GPS failures pose to greater society – to safety and economic activity, to national security? What can or should be done to reduce such risks? By whom? What
Their task? Difficult on several levels. First, they’re trying to anticipate the risks associated with a set of events which have never happened. In the words of Arif Alikhan, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, “risk management” is usually meaningful only with respect to repetitive risk. But this is something different – the GPS failures of concern, and their resultant impacts, should they occur, would be unprecedented. Second, workshop participants are trying to go beyond the science per se. They hope to identify policy options that might head off some or most of this risk. As this blog has discussed repeatedly, science and policy sometimes don’t mix well.
Several federal agencies – NASA, NOAA, NSF, and DHS and the FAA, have helped make this workshop possible. So have a number of aerospace firms – in particular, ITT, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and SAIC. But the workshop has been pulled together largely through the efforts of Dr. Genene Fisher of the AMS. It should come as no surprise that she’s a scientist version 4.0. She received a Ph.D. in space physics and a master’s degree in public policy, both from the University of Michigan in the same year, 2000.
Oh, and those Chilean miners? You can bet that along with many other technologies, GPS played a role – maybe only a bit part, but a part nevertheless – in their rescue: in locating them and drilling to them, and in all the work of an anxious world to make that story possible and then make it accessible.
Por la razón o la fuerza!
 For an engaging account, read The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark (2007)
 Interested? Read The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage.