The dark side of the beautiful aurora

Editor’s Note: Bob Kolasky is senior vice president for critical infrastructure at Exiger, a provider of supply chain and third-party risk analytics for the U.S. government and critical infrastructure sectors. He is also a senior fellow at Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber ​​and Infrastructure Security. He previously led the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) National Risk Management Center. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. view more opinion on CNN.

Last weekend, attention turned to the sky as we witnessed the visual manifestation of the sheer size and epic nature of space. The reach of the Northern Lights, visible over a much larger area than normal, 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 warning in nearly two decades also caught the attention of a host of homeland security, emergency management and business continuity professionals, who wondered whether this “extreme” solar storm was the “big one” in terms of impacts . and potentially crippling space weather events.

For more than a decade, security professionals within U.S. government administrations and in the emergency management and critical infrastructure sectors have increasingly focused on the risk of geomagnetic storms — or, in time, many Americans have had their first taste of space weather.

Spurred by energy emitted from the sun, a geomagnetic storm disrupts the Earth’s magnetic field, which can result in currents that can disrupt or damage systems. A major storm can knock out electricity and water supplies, disable ground flights, bring public transportation to a standstill and close gas stations.

Focused efforts have been made in recent years to strengthen electricity, telecommunications, transportation, and space infrastructure against the threat of space weather-induced impacts that could degrade long-term service delivery around critical functions.

That preparation, along with how this particular geomagnetic “superstorm” played out, appears to have contributed to the minimal impact felt on the country’s critical infrastructure this weekend, although the storm reportedly kept power grid operators “busy” with maintaining ‘good, regulated current levels’. .” Other reports of the impact include changes in global positioning systems (GPS) being felt across the agricultural sector and “deteriorated radio communications from aviation and maritime operators.”

There is praise for the country’s resilience efforts, including energy system operators preparing for adverse events and responding quickly when they occur. But while the conditions were fortunate this time, we need to be aware of how serious these consequences could be next time and prepare for a more serious space weather event with potentially devastating consequences.

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

Among the risks driving the need for NSM 22 are those arising from geomagnetic events, in which bursts of energy from the sun produce currents that can significantly impact critical infrastructure systems. Policymakers are particularly concerned about the so-called cascading effects that space weather could cause.

For example, damage to a satellite system degrades its ability to provide real-time navigation, which could then have a disproportionate impact on transportation systems (particularly aviation). Or the pulsating impact of a geomagnetic storm could overwhelm components of the core power grid infrastructure, causing portions of the overall power grid to shut down in a manner that is difficult to restore and with long-term consequences for the energy supply that affects the electricity supply. 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 that such events with little historical precedent but potentially devastating consequences be taken into account.

Space weather has been one of those events, and building resilience against potentially extreme impacts has been an ongoing priority for the federal Space Weather Operations, Research, and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force, which was established in 2014 by the National Science and Technology Council. .

From 2017 to 2022, I served as co-chair of 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 infrastructure owners and operators. These deployment efforts, which focused on protecting critical infrastructure and sharing information, were certainly helpful in preparing for the space weather events we saw last weekend.

Among the focuses of the SWORM planning efforts were the need to connect space weather science with infrastructure risk mitigation efforts, the need to improve space weather forecasting capabilities, and the importance of international cooperation in space weather.

Preparedness efforts are recognized as critical to helping mitigate impacts by improving our response and recovery capabilities. These activities were useful in advance of the recent storm as the storm forecast was widely distributed to emergency managers and continuity professionals, many of whom relied on it for planning and improving preparedness.

While this solar storm was more of a light show than widespread impacts to critical 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 major geomagnetic storm could have much greater consequences. Providers of critical functions must remain vigilant.

And while the sun’s activity caused last weekend’s events, there is also the possibility that a future incident will be man-made and caused by a weaponized electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, which could result from nuclear explosions at high altitudes. There were growing concerns about EMP earlier this year when intelligence was released about Russian President Vladimir Putin sabre-rattling over the use of tactical nuclear weapons in space. How seriously to take the risk of EMP events has been an active policy debate for more than two decades.

However, there is bipartisan consensus that building resilience against human-induced EMP events and naturally occurring geomagnetic events is related, and there is a degree to which mitigation efforts are dual-use. This is useful given the hybrid risk world we live in. Efforts to reduce dual-use must remain a priority for resilience.

Initiatives that should continue include those to improve the science of the effects of geomagnetic activity on the ground (including potentially permanent damage to pipelines) and efforts to translate the science into stronger infrastructure design – including within the electrical grid and operational technology that enables communication and transportation. attempts.

Financial incentives should be put in place 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 communications with a broader range of entities that manage our critical infrastructure – including energy, communications and emergency services – that do not necessarily have continuity programs connected to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center or the ability to rely on membership-driven formal 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 focus more attention on the resilience of satellite systems – both in space and on Earth – and provide an opportunity to strengthen public-private working relationships with major providers of space services. Biden did not do this in NSM 22, but left the door open for this to change in the future when the president asked for recommendations from the agency on creating better infrastructure protections. The risks associated with space weather events are a compelling reason to make this designation.

The blinding aurora should remind us of the power of the sun that can potentially wreak havoc on critical systems we need. Our focus on increasing resilience to natural and man-made space activities must continue.

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