Racing the Sun to Protect America
Lessons from the solar storm of May 1921.
One hundred years ago, on the fifteenth of May 1921, random telegraph and telephone offices in the United States and around the world suddenly burst into flames. Fuses were blown, equipment damaged, connections severed. Undersea telegraph cable service was interrupted. Aurora—as in “the northern lights”—appeared in Pasadena, California. The night sky in Boston was so bright you could read a newspaper.
A railroad office and switching system in New York were also destroyed. The event came to be known as the “New York Railroad Solar Storm of 1921.”
Earth had been slapped, and hard, by the sun. Three successive coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, had first weakened and then penetrated the planet’s natural defenses.
When this happens again, and it will, the after-effects will make the COVID-19 pandemic look like a warm-up act. Unless we are ready.
If we continue to move at the normal pace of government, we probably won’t be.
GPS Especially Vulnerable
The last hundred years have seen an explosion of interconnected electronic and electrical systems that are both necessary to modern life and vulnerable to the effects of a powerful CME. While electrical grids and other systems are at risk, none are as vulnerable, impossible to protect, and critically important to daily life as the Global Positioning System.
Flying 12,000 miles above the Earth and circling twice a day, GPS satellites are exceptionally difficult to protect from an angry sun. Warnings that can allow equipment on the ground to be shut down or shielded are of minimal use in space. While temporarily taking satellites off-line might provide some protection, sensitive electrical equipment onboard can still be easily damaged or destroyed by a powerful solar event.
Highly precise GPS signals are not just essential for the safety and efficiency of every form of transportation; they have also been incorporated into virtually every networked technology, including telecommunications, the internet, ATMs and credit card transactions. A damaged GPS constellation would cause profound long-term damage to our economy and security. Some government officials have called GPS “a single point of failure” for America.
Yet, despite vulnerability to severe solar activity, a variety of other threats, and its importance to the nation’s economy and security, the U.S. has no backup or alternative plan if GPS is not available.
Especially powerful CMEs are rare but recurring phenomena. Scientific research has uncovered one in 1770. The first recorded was the famous 1859 Carrington Event that set early telegraph offices on fire and lit the night skies with aurora far into the tropics.
A powerful CME passed through Earth’s orbit in 2012. According to NASA, if it had happened several days earlier “we would still be picking up the pieces.”
The most recent science tells us these events are not as rare as once thought.
Dr. Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is one of the nation’s leading authority on solar activity. He warns that the next decade or so will be a particularly dangerous time.
“We have every reason to believe that the current solar cycle which began in December 2019 could be the most active since the 1970s,” McIntosh said. “This is a particular concern for the GPS. Strong solar storms can charge the atmosphere and prevent signals from getting through for days. The strongest can damage or even destroy satellites.”
He estimates that in the next 10 years there is a 35% to 45% chance a CME will disrupt GPS service for up to several days. The cost to our nation and economy will be measured in the billions of dollars.
Perhaps even more concerning, scientists estimate the chance of a Carrington-level CME in the next 10 years to be from 4% to 12%. To some, this might seem like a too low a chance to worry about. Yet, in the absence of an alternate capability for GPS the damage to America will be incalculable. Transportation, telecommunications, consumer financial systems and other critical functions will be crippled. The entire economy will be in disarray.
And America will be reduced to permanently second-rate status in the world. Because others, including Russia, China, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia will not suffer nearly as much. Unlike us, they already have terrestrial systems that can take over when GPS signals from space are not available.
Protecting Users and America
Government leaders have known about this near-existential risk to America for years. They have even promised to act, but haven’t.
In 2004 President George W. Bush ordered a backup capability be established to serve the nation’s economic and security needs when GPS wasn’t available. After much study, in 2008 a technology was selected and a plan announced. But nothing was ever done.
Responding to Congress’ concerns in 2015 the Obama administration pledged to establish the same technology as the previous administration. Again, nothing was ever done.
Increasingly concerned and frustrated by executive branch repeated failures, Congress passed the National Timing Resilience and Security Act in 2018. It required the Department of Transportation establish a terrestrial backup for essential GPS timing signals by December 2020. Other than a public warning from the Trump administration that GPS signals might not always be reliable or even available—you guessed it—nothing was ever done.
Fortunately, the Biden administration seems well attuned to the threat and agrees with the need to address it. In both private conversations and public testimony, Department of Transportation officials have acknowledged the need for action.
Still, no project has begun. No money has been appropriated, and the most recent government report on the topic recommends “more study.”
Time Is of the Essence
Establishing one or more GPS alternative technologies will not be enough to make the nation safer. They must also be widely available, adopted and used. This means, even with the most concerted government efforts, five or six years will be needed to establish systems and encourage, or where needed, require, users to protect themselves and vital services.
Such a timeline will take us well into the coming solar danger zone.
America’s game of solar Russian roulette is becoming more and more dangerous. Every day that goes by without a GPS alternative increases the chance the gun will go off and America will be permanently crippled.
We must act, and quickly, before it is too late.
Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.