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Severe Space Weather a Threat Equal with Tornadoes, NASA Chief Says

Jun 06, 2013 10:22 AM EDT
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Tuesday NASA chief Charles Bolden addressed the "dangers of space weather" at a conference of scientists and space industry experts gathered for the Space Weather Enterprise Forum, highlighting what he said are dangers to Earth on par with those presented by hurricanes and tornadoes.

Space weather can include a number of phenomena, many of which have their origins in the Sun, which has been quite volatile in the past few months with a series of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and powerful gusts of solar wind, several of which have been Earth-directed.

In addition to posing threats to satellites and other communication equipment orbiting in space, instances of severe space weather can affect terrestrial equipment as well.

Space.com obtained Bolden's written remarks from the conference, where in mentioning the dangers of space weather he highlighted his grief caused by the recent spate of deadly tornadoes in the Midwest, which induced the widest E-F5 tornado ever recorded.

In his remarks, Bolden said space weather can be "just as punishing as a tornado."

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said in 2011 that a severe solar storm has the potential to take down telecommunications and power grids.

"We have every reason to expect we're going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and be prepared," she said, according to Space.com, adding that it's not it's "not a matter of if, it's simply a matter of when and how big."

The attendees at Tuesday's conference discussed the existing vulnerabilities in existing infrastructure and considered what can be done to create better-protected system.  

A 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report indicated that a severe solar storm hitting Earth would cause power outages, radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions that would affect a variety of industries including banking, finance, telecommunications and transportation, Florida Today reported.

"Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly," the NAS report said.

"Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina."

But NASA chief Bolden is confident that through international teamwork, the threats of severe space weather can be conquered. Next week when Bolden speaks at United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, Austria, it will be the first time the UN committee has included space weather as a talking point.

"We have shown how, working as a team, we can save lives when hurricanes and tornadoes strike here on Earth," Bolden said. "I am confident we can be just as effective working together to protect our people, our critical infrastructures, and our planet from the dangers of space weather."

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