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Solar Radiation Storms Affect Emergency Planning

Posted on Thu, Mar 01, 2012

In January of 2012, the earth experienced the largest solar storm since 2003. Although the full impact of the coronal mass ejections (CME) was moderate because of the trajectory path, scientists believe that the sun is entering an active period know as "solar maximum", with the height of activity predicted to occur in 2013.

According to Discovery News,
“As the sun increases in activity toward "solar maximum" (predicted to occur in 2013), we can expect more intense solar storms over the coming months. Magnetic activity is bursting through the solar "surface" (the photosphere), producing a rash of sunspots. This in turn has resulted in explosive events -- solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) -- boosting the intensity of radiation environment surrounding our planet.”

What does this mean for Environmental, Health and Safety Professions?

Solar storms can adversely affect established infrastructure, specifically power supplies and satellite-based communications. Since the sun’s electromagnetic activities are predicted to be at an elevated activity level into 2013, the chances of disruptions become more likely. Emergency managers should review and revise plans accordingly.

1) Potential power failures: Power companies, which operate long transmission lines, are subject to damage by CME’s. On March 13, 1989, Quebec and portions of the northeastern United States, experienced a nine hour power failure to over 6 million people due to a large geomagnetic storm. Some areas of Sweden were similarly affected.

Solar storms are also harmful to electrical transmission equipment, especially generators and transformers. The CMEs can induce core saturation in these devices, which constrains performance.  The safety devices within these devices can also be tripped, causing coils and cores to overheat, causing damage.  

2) Communications failures:  Solar storms can adversely affect current satellite technology by interfering with signals sent to and from the satellites. Many businesses are susceptible to CME’s because of the complex dependency on satellite technology. Current satellite technology is used to synchronize computers, and direct navigational systems, telecommunications networks, and other electronic devices. GPS systems and cell phones also can be affected by CMEs.

Effective emergency planning and business continuity plans and systems should be implemented due to the many unknown events which may occur. However, increased solar activity further amplifies the need to identify critical business processes, safety procedures, and the necessary infrastructure for a rapid recovery to “business as usual” after an event.

For tips and best practices on designing a crisis management program, download Best Practices for Crisis Management.

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Tags: Radiation, Business Continuity, Crisis Management, Data Loss, Disaster Recovery, Notification Systems