In all likelihood, someday the sun will knock out the grid
Why everyone should start paying attention to space weather reports.
Shortly after sunset on June 18, 2013, a woman drove her minivan onto Brighton Street in Belmont, Massachusetts. Her GPS told her to turn right. But the metallic voice, guided by satellite data, steered her wrong: onto a railroad track. She tried to drive off, but the van got stuck. No sooner had she unbuckled herself and her two kids and ushered them out than a train crumpled her car into a ball of foil. Not long after, someone sent a news story about the incident to space physicist Tamitha Skov. She didn’t just see a GPS acting up. She saw the sun acting up. While our star looks calm and contained, its surface roils: Spots form and darken it like scabs; loops of plasma link its regions; its atmosphere streams farther outward than the star is wide. Solar flares, which are bursts of radiation, and coronal mass ejections, which are bombs of stellar material, disturb both Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere. There, they disrupt devices—like GPS receivers—that rely on electricity or radio communication. This interplay between the sun and Earth is called space weather, and it is Skov’s specialty. At the time, Skov had just begun a Web video series that gave space-weather forecasts, much like the predictions Al Roker makes on TV for clouds and sunshine. In it, she explained how our nearest star affects Earth. She had a modest but engaged following. Motorists were already starting to tip her off whenever their SiriusXM service cut out, airline and small-craft pilots would tell her when navigation went awry, and taxi drivers would describe routing errors. A number of these accounts involved drivers rolling, at the behest of their GPS, onto train tracks, or other not-roads, especially near dawn and dusk. At first, Skov blew off these anecdotes. When the reports kept coming, she consulted an atmospheric expert at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded R&D center where Skov works as a research scientist. “What’s up with this?” Skov asked her colleague. “Is it something?” Yes, the woman replied, the atmosphere is always unstable at sunset and sunrise. Add solar flares to that? “It could definitely make a difference,” the expert said. Skov checked the website of the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory to see if there had, in fact, been a solar flare around the time of the woman’s fateful drive. And there it was: a C-class outburst, medium strength.
No single small solar event—like this C-class flare—can yet be definitively linked to a specific problem, like a GPS device in a minivan leading its driver onto railroad tracks. Skov nonetheless calls incidents like this one smoking guns, even if scientists can’t conclusively prove the cause. She strives to make people aware that this kind of thing can happen. “I was trying to impress upon people that GPS is extremely susceptible,” she says of the van accident, “and just blindly trusting it is nuts.”
Space weather’s effects can be small or significant. The C-class solar flare was hardly noticeable, even if it did total the woman’s car. But there is also plenty of evidence that humans need to watch out for the sun—big-time. So Skov dedicated herself to explaining the increasing terrestrial problems that will come from the star that lets us live on Earth in the first place. She became the Space Weather Woman, connecting her viewers to the cosmos and bringing all levels of space weather to all kinds of people.
The last time the sun really made people go uh-oh was on March 10, 1989. Astronomers watched as the star set loose a billion tons of gas at a million miles an hour—a coronal mass ejection—and blasted a solar flare along with it. The radiation, traveling at light-speed, struck Earth eight and a half minutes later. As it collided with the upper atmosphere, it charged up molecules, blocking radio communications at Earth’s upper latitudes, including from Europe into Russia, which at the time, listeners took as Cold War interference. The radio-frequency problems mostly affected ground-to-air and ship-to-shore communications, as well as shortwave-radio and amateur radio users.
The real problems came two days later, when a slower-moving swarm of magnetically charged material arrived. It pummeled Earth’s magnetic shield, which protects the globe from everyday radiation. Charged particles whizzed down magnetic-field lines and smashed into atoms in the air, producing Northern Lights. Usually those stay, you know, up north. But this time, the show played as far south as Texas. Satellites lost their bearings and tottered as particles bombarded their electronics. The storm stripped the GOES-7 weather satellite of half its solar cells, shortening its lifetime by 50 percent.
Earth’s shivering magnetic field also created ground currents. Coursing along, they encountered a flaw in Quebec’s power grid. It was easier for the current to flow through the power lines than across the rocky ground, and the extra load caused circuit breakers to trip. Around 3 a.m. on March 13, the whole province went dark.
It’s Quebec: It was cold—5 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. There was no heat. Schools and companies closed; public transit and the airport went still. The outage affected 6 million people for up to nine hours.
Today, modern society relies on exactly the devices that such a storm disrupts. A 2017 study in the American Geophysical Union’s Space Weather journal estimated the effect if a solar storm as great as the largest on record—an 1859 shakeup called the Carrington Event—were to strike again. It would cost the United States $42 billion per day. The repercussions could last years, perhaps decades. The power grid could fail. You wouldn’t be able to get money out of a bank. Businesses couldn’t operate. Water pumps wouldn’t work; phones either. Food would go bad. Governments would have a hard time governing. “We have created an incredible vulnerability, unlike any other,” says Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center, the celestial arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.
Solar disturbances were largely the concern of academics until 1994, when the federal government created the National Space Weather Program to support research into the storms. In 1996, scientists held the first space-weather workshop in Boulder. Since 2007, they have been meeting annually to discuss the latest research. Their reports, as well as ones from private industry, eventually alarmed the Obama White House, which in 2014 established a task force to devise a defensive strategy, coordinate government agencies and the private sector, and increase the quality of space-weather predictions.
There is a greater than 10 percent chance that a Carrington-scale event will happen within the next decade, according to a paper by Pete Riley of Predictive Science, a space-weather research company. That might sound like a small number, but it’s higher than the chance of a major earthquake hitting California.
Scientists like Murtagh and Skov follow the sun’s activity daily, so they see how it fiddles with tech in ways most of us fail to register. It is precisely because of that familiarity that they understand how serious even another Quebec-size event would be. Skov wants regular citizens to gain the same perspective. That’s why, under the alter ego of the Space Weather Woman, she details for them the ups and downs of the sun’s violent outbursts.
Skov has outfitted a DIY recording studio in her home in the San Fernando Valley, just far enough north of Los Angeles that you begin to think that maybe you’re somewhere else. At the end of a road steep enough to require using a parking brake, she’s a little closer to the sky than her neighbors. This fall morning, she’s been working on a new video about why people should care about how the sun’s behavior affects humans.
Skov stands in front of a big monitor paused on a frame showing Twitter statistics. We live, she says, in a brave new(ish) world. A solo space physicist can start her own branch of meteorology from a room right off her driveway. And she can also gather information—about aurorae, radio-communication problems, and GPS errors—from a global community.
She moves away from the monitor and toward her camera. A green screen hangs from the wall to her right. The room shines with synthetic illumination: A ring light—like a luminous Life Savers candy—encircles the camera; across the room, a warmer bulb beams against a drugstore umbrella spray-painted silver.
The studio dates to her grad-school days, when Skov studied space physics at UCLA, was part of a pop alternative rock band, and ran a production company recording other musicians. After she graduated, she kept the studio going as she started work at the Aerospace Corporation, which gives guidance to the military, space agencies, and the private sector on research and development and technology transfer. There, Skov studied space weather’s interactions with satellites. “I was beginning to get this big picture,” she says. “This isn’t ‘space weather’ as a cool term. This is space weather.” Outside her professional life, she pivoted from audio to video production.
All of it spun together in 2012, as she grew concerned about the sun’s threats. She took to Twitter, where people had questions—lots of them. And Skov had answers, sans jargon. “You put three words that are from the space-science field on Twitter, and you already walked all over your character limit,” she says. Soon, she began producing short videos and putting them on YouTube. Then came the nickname and her likeness superimposed on the sun: the Space Weather Woman. The style reads as intense: close-cropped shots of the sun’s flares that make the viewer feel less like it’s a mysterious object 93 million miles away and more like it’s right there with her—and so with them.
Initially, Skov kept her two identities separate. She used her married name in her forecasts and her maiden name on scientific papers. She thought the slimmed-down science might slam into the research community at the wrong angle. But peers found her anyway after a space physicist discovered her videos and sent them to a researcher listserv. Some scientists pointed out small inaccuracies. Others simply didn’t like her “loosey-goosey” language, which didn’t use their jargon, with its specific but impenetrable meanings. She took the legit criticism—it kept her honest, she says—and left the rest. “I think I’d rather be pelted with olives from scientists than pelted with olives from the public,” she says. Now, researchers too watch her forecasts, along with 27,000 Twitter followers and 11,000 YouTube subscribers. “There is really nothing like it around,” says Christian Moestl, a space-weather scientist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “Her YouTube videos and Twitter feed are watched by both researchers and interested public to see what’s going on.”
Skov’s biggest fans are in the amateur-radio community: people with handsets and ham licenses. Radio operators see space weather scrape across Earth in real time when their broadcasts get blocked or enhanced. Amateur radio operator Tom Crow first found her forecasts on a program called Ham Nation.
“Dr. Skov has a knack for explaining terms in detail without the feeling that it’s been dumbed down.”
Then there are the aurora tourists. Skov’s forecasts tell them where to go when. But that charge flows in both directions: Field reporters also tell Skov where the aurora is showing up. “People started informing each other, and the community began to build,” she says.
Skov believes that understanding how life on Earth is looped inextricably with our star can help people grok the import of the really, really big one. She draws a comparison to more-familiar weather forecasting. Humans grow up hearing about meteorological phenomena great and small. But that doesn’t happen with space weather. “It’s like trying to tell someone who’s never seen rain how dangerous a hurricane is,” she says.
Once people understand, they can prepare for extreme space weather as they do for any natural disaster: Have water supplies, extra gasoline, and nonperishable food, and make a plan for meeting up even if you can’t communicate. And have some board games, because this might take a while.
As the Space Weather Woman, Skov is at the vanguard of interpreting data from NASA satellites and observatories for regular folks. But when big entities like satellite operators, energy companies, and airlines need to know how the sun’s shine will affect them, they turn to the Space Weather Prediction Center, whose scientists scrutinize the data, looking for activity strong enough to cause friction with earthly objects.
Any time that happens, they send out alerts—categorized from one to five, with five being the highest—to utilities, satellite companies, and others. Toward the end of 2017 they did that around 100 times a month. With a warning, technicians can reroute electricity, reschedule communication, and delay satellite operations.
When the sun carries on in a big way, a subset of the scientists relocates to the High-Activity Room, a sealed-off spot where they talk with major players. There, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has its own internet-enabled video-conferencing monitor, labeled like leftovers in an office refrigerator. FEMA needs to know what’s coming so it can prepare for the disruption a major power outage would cause, and to coordinate with operatives before a communications blackout occurs.”Communication is life or death,” Murtagh says.
In September, rescue workers got a taste of what it is like when the sun and Earth both create hurricanes. Just as Irma battered land, the sun sent out a series of flares and coronal mass ejections. High-frequency radio comms ceased in the storm-battered Caribbean. Hurricane Watch Net, made up of amateur radio operators, reported disruptions.
While this confluence didn’t add to the destruction, it could next time, especially as earthly storms come with more frequency and force, and are thus more likely to line up with a starburst. Just like with a Category 5 hurricane, there’d be no getting around a major solar event. All we could do is see it coming, get a sense of how bad and big it would be, and prepare to hunker down for a while.
Soon the Space Weather Prediction Center will gather the data to make more-precise predictions, with the launch this year of observatories like NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which will fly closer to the sun than anything so far, and two additions to the sun-and-Earth-watching GOES satellite series in 2018 and 2020. Its scientists have also created a model that will make local space-weather reports possible. “The AccuWeathers of the world can take the information and make a tailored product,” Murtagh says.
Those space AccuWeathers are only in their infancy, but Skov can’t wait for them—and for the broadcasters and predictors and translators who will bring our star down to Earth for people. She’s working with the American Meteorological Society to create a space-weather-broadcast certification. She might be her discipline’s version of Al Roker, but even Al Roker needs local forecasters, standing in front of their own green screens, giving that quotidian space-weather report to a curious audience. “You say, ‘Imagine 10 to 100 times worse than this,’” she says. “And they go, ‘My god.’ It hits them. And they go: ‘I get it. I really get it.’”
Contributing editor Sarah Scoles is the author of Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2018 Power issue of Popular Science.