Hurricanes can cause widespread damage because they are so expansive, long-lasting, and powerful. Two of the costliest hurricanes on record, Katrina and Harvey, tallied damage numbers close to $125 billion dollars, respectively. As impressive as those numbers sound, what if I told you that there are storms that could cause over $1 trillion (with a “t”) dollars in losses on Earth. These events are not hurricanes or tornadoes, but powerful geomagnetic storms that originate from the Sun. Space weather is a field of science that monitors and predicts them. What is space weather, and how is a trillion dollar storm even possible?
I am an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Georgia. In some of my classes, I often ask, “What is space weather?” There are usually a few seconds of silence and then a brave student will cautiously answer, “Storms or tornadoes on other planets?” I suspect many of you would answer the question the same way. Space weather is actually defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website as “variations in the space environment between the sun and Earth (and throughout the solar system) that can affect technologies in space and on Earth.” Such variations are manifested as coronal mass ejections, solar flares, solar wind, and other solar particle events. These geomagnetic storms and associated events are scientifically interesting but can be extremely disruptive to society. NOAA actually has a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado that serves a similar function for “solar storms” as the National Hurricane Center does for tropical cyclones.
You might be asking, “So what that the Sun occasionally belches and sneezes solar particles or plasma to Earth?” One of the more benign consequences is the Aurora. There are also more pressing consequences. According to NOAA SWPC, here is the “so what?”:
Space weather is a global issue. Unlike terrestrial weather events, like a hurricane, space weather has the potential to impact not only the United States, but wider geographic regions. These complex events can have significant economic consequences and have the potential to negatively affect numerous sectors, including communications, satellite and airline operations, manned space flights, navigation and surveying systems, as well as the electric power grid. NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website
This is why prediction of these “storms” is so important. The science has progressed to the point that lead times can range from minutes to days. In 2017, Robert Coker published an essay entitled “The Trillion Dollar (Solar) Storm” in TheSpaceReview.com. Coker described how NOAA, NASA, and other organizations use advanced satellite systems and models to assess space weather events. He also described the 1859 Carrington Event, the first known modern occurrence of a solar storm impacting Earth. He wrote:
Richard Carrington observed a large flare on the Sun. Then, the next day, auroras could be seen in tropical latitudes and telegraph systems all over the world, starting to shock telegraph operators, operating while unplugged, and igniting the telegraph paper. Robert Coker, TheSpaceReview.com