03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Natural Disasters and Solar Storms: Why Space Weather Matters

In addition to events such as the Haitian earthquake and global warming, there lurks another potentially devastating challenge of a different sort to which neither the public nor policy makers have devoted sufficient attention. The culprit is "space weather."

The star that lights our day and gives us life, the Sun, also generates periodic disturbances -- solar storms and flares -- that give rise to effects that rain upon the Earth. While this space weather has minimal impact on humans in the normal course of events, it can have a devastating impact on the electric power generating systems as well as the electronic and computer infrastructure that keeps modern society going.

In the near future, the problem is likely to grow. Scientists predict more severe space weather and solar storms on the horizon due to the coming rise in solar activity in its eleven-year cycle -- with potentially catastrophic effects in 2011 and beyond. According to a recent report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a single severe storm could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damages to the U.S.'s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery.

Fortunately, the United States has taken measures to monitor the risk and provide timely warning to reduce the consequences. Unfortunately, public officials may jeopardize these measures unless they overcome penny-wise and pound-foolish proposed budget cuts.

Few of us realize that space weather already has negatively impacted our lives. A few years ago in May 1998 solar activity knocked out for a day all cell phones in the U.S. affecting everything from credit card transactions to telemedicine. In 1989, the Hydro-Quebec power grid suffered a nine hour loss of generation leaving millions in the dark following a large geomagnetic storm that was caused by solar eruptions and space weather. For many years airlines have modified Polar routes to reduce the potentially damaging radiation effects on humans because of the increased penetration of high energy particles in these regions and because of the potential for communication blackouts. (Transpolar flights are increasing: In 2000 there were 368 and in 2008 more than 7,999.)

In its 2008 evaluation of potential cascading impacts of space weather events the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the disruption of electric power could lead to disruptions in transportation, communication, banking, finance systems, government services, potable water (due to pump failure), loss of perishable foods and medicines (due to lack of refrigeration). The report points out that lengthy power outages could affect the entire U.S. and have international impacts.

Efforts to predict this space weather -- and prevent such catastrophes -- currently rely on data from a single spacecraft, which is wearing out. While NASA's ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) has fuel through 2024, top scientists and military strategists have found that during space storms several key instruments have failed to report data in real time. This is like having a fire department that breaks down just when there is a fire, just when you need it the most.

The DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory), replacement spacecraft for ACE, was built to monitor Earth weather and global warming, and also features equipment that can measure -- and help predict -- solar and space weather. DSCOVR was evaluated by the National Academy of Sciences and their report called this mission "strong and scientifically vital."

However, due to budgetary concerns, this $100+ million DSCOVR program is at risk as a potpourri of federal environmental, space, defense, and budgetary agencies attempt to pare down federal expenditures. In Congress, efforts to fund space weather in the "Critical Electric Infrastructure Protection Act," which also addresses cyber security, languishes in committee.

Space weather remains an under-appreciated challenge. Spacecraft along with other space and ground assets can detect the arrival of these storms; but, without an ACE replacement, there will be no warning in time to prevent potentially catastrophic damage. This is a serious life-threatening matter that demands our attention. We simply cannot afford to let DSCOVR's launch funding be eliminated.

Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., Vice Admiral U.S. Navy retired, is a former Under Secretary of Commerce and Administrator of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and currently Vice President for Science Programs at CSC Corporation