Opinion: The darker side of the brilliant aurora

Editor’s Note: Bob Kolasky is the senior vice president for critical infrastructure at Exiger, a provider of analysis of supply chain and third-party risk for the US government and critical infrastructure industries. He also is 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.

Attention turned to the sky last weekend as we witnessed the visual manifestation of the sheer scale and epic nature of space. The reach of the northern lights display, visible over a much wider area than usual, captured the imagination of millions of citizens worldwide 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 also seized the attention of a large swath of homeland security, emergency management and business continuity professionals who wondered whether this “extreme” solar storm was the “big one” in terms of consequential and potentially crippling space weather events.

For more than a decade, security professionals across US government administrations and in emergency management and critical infrastructure industries have increasingly focused on the risk of geomagnetic storms — or, in the term many Americans have become newly acquainted with, space weather.

Spurred by energy ejected from the sun, a geomagnetic storm disturbs Earth’s magnetic field, which can result in currents that may disrupt or harm systems. A severe storm could knock out power and water service, ground flights, bring public transportation systems to a halt and close gas stations.

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

That preparation, along with how this particular geomagnetic “superstorm” played out, seems to have contributed to minimal impacts being felt across the nation’s critical infrastructure over the weekend, though the storm reportedly kept power grid operators “busy” maintaining “proper, regulated current.” Other reports of impacts included global positioning systems (GPS) changes felt in the agriculture sector and “degraded radio communications from aviation and marine operators.”

Plaudits are in order for the nation’s resilience efforts, including power system operators who prepare for adverse events and respond quickly if they happen. But while circumstances fortunately fell in line this time, we need to be cognizant of how serious these impacts could be next time and prepare for a more severe space weather event with potentially devastating consequences.

This affirms 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 collaboration to strengthen the nation’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 posed by geomagnetic events, in which bursts of energy from the sun produce the currents that can significantly impact critical infrastructure systems. Policymakers are particularly concerned with the so-called cascading impacts that space weather could cause.

Damage to a satellite system, for example, degrades the ability for real-time navigation, which could then have a disproportionate impact on transportation systems (particularly aviation). Or the pulse impact of a geomagnetic storm can cause components of the core infrastructure of the electric grid to be overwhelmed, leading to portions of the overall grid shutting down in a way that is hard to recover from and causing long-term power impacts that affect the functioning of water systems and hospitals.

Both scenarios are realistic, although considered rare, and thus are often referred to as “low-probability, high-consequence” events. Resilience planning demands that such events with little historical precedent but potentially devastating impacts be considered.

Space weather has been one of those events, and building resilience to 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 co-chaired this group, with a mandate to develop and implement the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan to guide coordinated efforts between the government, the research community and infrastructure owners and operators. These implementation efforts, which emphasized protecting critical infrastructure and information sharing, were surely helpful in preparing for the space weather events we saw last weekend.

Among the focus areas of the SWORM planning efforts has been the need to connect space weather science to infrastructure risk-mitigation efforts, the need to enhance space weather prediction capabilities and the importance of international collaboration in the space weather field.

Preparedness efforts have been recognized as critical to help mitigate the effects by improving our capability for response and recovery. Those activities were useful in advance of the recent storm, as the storm prediction was widely disseminated to emergency managers and continuity professionals, many of whom relied on it for planning and enhancing preparedness.

Even though this solar storm brought more of a light show than widespread consequences for critical systems, this should not be an excuse for complacency. The reality of low-probability, high-consequence events is that there is always a great deal of uncertainty around them, and the next significant geomagnetic storm may 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 could be man-made and caused by a weaponized electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, which can result from high-altitude nuclear detonations. There were increased concerns about EMP earlier this year when intelligence was released regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin saber-rattling about using tactical nuclear weapons in space. How seriously to take the risk of EMP events has been an active policy debate for over 20 years.

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

Among the initiatives that should continue are those to improve the science of ground impacts of geomagnetic activity (including potentially permanent damage to pipelines) and efforts to convert the science into stronger infrastructure design – including within the electric grid and operational technology that powers communications and transportation efforts.

Financial incentives should be put in place to invest in resilience-by-design to help protect communities against impacts from space weather. We can also learn from this solar storm and improve public risk communications with a wider swath of entities that run our critical infrastructure — including energy, communications and emergency services — who don’t necessarily have continuity programs that are 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 bring further attention to the resilience of satellite systems —both in space and terrestrially— and present an opportunity to strengthen public-private working relationships with major space service providers. Biden did not do so in NSM 22 but left the door open for that to change in the future as the president requested agency recommendations on crafting better infrastructure protection. The risks posed by space weather events are a compelling reason to make that designation.

The dazzling aurora should remind us of the sun’s power to potentially wreak havoc on critical systems we need. Our focus on building out resilience to natural and man-made space activity must continue.

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