Figure 1. Image of the sun seen in ultraviolet light from the SOHO satellite showing enormous bubbles of magnetic plasma blasting into space during a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). Image source: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_759.html. Credit: NASA/JPL


The extensive storm damage caused by the hurricanes of 2008 was a reminder of the threat that natural phenomena can pose to technology infrastructure systems. Natural disasters routinely cause catastrophic structural damage, interrupt utility power, eliminate normal telecommunications services, shut down water supplies, and disrupt natural gas and diesel fuel delivery. The loss of any one of these basic infrastructure services could be catastrophic to the unprepared mission-critical facility. As a result, facility managers must remain diligent and forward-looking when it comes to natural disasters that could threaten the operational continuity of their facility.

Recent observations by solar physicists indicate that an old environmental threat may be gathering strength. Increased solar magnetic activity can result in adverse space weather conditions that threaten the communication and power infrastructures vital to the operation of mission-critical systems, has been increasing.

Critical-facility managers are very aware of how the threat of terrestrial storms (electrical storms, hurricanes, blizzards, and tornados) can affect the operational continuity of their facilities. But in the coming years, it will not be enough for critical-facility managers to check the local weather for potential threats; they must also look for threats from weather in space. To do so, the mission-critical facility manager must understand threats posed by space weather and the solar cycle. Exotic as these threats might be, they are well understood. Facility managers can prepare for these events and make use of available resources.

Space Weather and Solar Cycles

At first, the concept of space weather may seem like a strange idea. However, the concept makes sense as the earth resides within the atmosphere of a violent and dynamic star. Similar to weather in planet’s atmosphere, the sun’s atmosphere fosters a variety of environmental phenomena. Unfortunately, these phenomena periodically include devastating magnetic storms. The National Space Weather Strategic Plan defines space weather as: “conditions on the sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health. Adverse conditions in the space environment can cause disruption of satellite operations, communications, navigation, and electric power distribution grids, leading to a variety of socioeconomic losses.”

Figure 2. Active Sun Spot. Credit: Hinode/JAXA/NASA

Like terrestrial weather patterns, space weather is cyclical. In general, the solar magnetic disturbances that cause adverse space weather follow an 11.1-year cycle. A solar cycle (SC) begins with a period known as solar minimum when activity levels are at their lowest. From this point, solar activity steadily increases to the solar maximum (solar max) when magnetic activity levels peak. Magnetic activity trails off after the solar maximum to a new solar minimum and the completion of a solar cycle.

On January 4th, 2008, National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) astronomers at the European Space Agency (ESA) Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) noted the appearance of an important new sunspot. This sunspot was remarkable because it is of a particular type known as a reversed polarity sunspot. According to solar physicists, the appearance of a reversed polarity sunspot is the key indicator of the start of a new solar cycle. With the appearance of this new sunspot, scientists quickly announced the official start of Solar Cycle 24.

Solar cycles vary greatly in intensity. Some have produced tremendous amounts of solar magnetic activity and resulted in fierce geomagnetic storms. Geomagnetic storms have a long history of causing severe problems with utility electrical power distribution systems. These problems have included equipment failures, fires, and widespread blackout conditions. Geomagnetic storms also threaten land- and satellite-based communication systems, often rendering landline-based communication impossibly distorted and pulling communication satellites from their orbits.

There is some disagreement among the scientific community about the activity levels that can be expected from Solar Cycle 24. In March 2006, Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) stated that, “The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one.” If she is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will feature the most magnetic activity in 50 years, and solar physicists expect the solar maximum of this solar cycle to be underway between 2012 and 2013.

As Solar Cycle 24 progresses toward its solar max, mission-critical facility stakeholders should anticipate a variety of potential space-weather related threats to the operational continuity of their facilities. These threats range from mild, aggravating communication systems interference to geomagnetic storms and the potential collapse of the North American electrical distribution grid.

Recommendations and Resources

The key concerns for mission critical professionals from space weather are:

  • Increased incidence of power outages

  • Increased incidence of terrestrial storm activity

  • Increased vulnerability of communication systems
Many of today’s mission-critical professionals entered the field after the last significant space-weather related event and may not have developed a dedicated approach for space weather events. Because a breakdown in multiple areas can lead to facility downtime when an adverse space weather event occurs, mission-critical professionals must remain diligently focused on several strategies (below) to proactively guard against space-weather events:

Figure 3. SpaceWeather ImpactDiagram. Credit: NASA

Maintain adequate on-site power generation systems. If a facility does not have adequate on-site power generation capabilities, it now has one more reason to purchase and install one. With the solar maximum due in 2012 and 2013 and lead times on large generator systems running near 12 months, now is the time to pull the trigger on a generator project.

Store sufficient fuel. Facility managers must carefully evaluate the amount of fuel kept on site and remain mindful that increased terrestrial storm activity and increased hurricane intensity may disrupt fuel delivery as it did in the southeastern United States during the hurricane season of 2008. For that reason, facilities should have enough fuel on hand to stay up during an extended utility outage and an interruption in fuel supply.

Evaluate bridge power capacity. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) bridges electrical power between utility power failure and the start of on-site power generation. For this reason, it is imperative that a quality UPS be part of the power distribution system. However, a UPS should not be relied on as the only source of backup power. An extended power loss will quickly exhaust the limited stored energy of a UPS system and leave a facility in the dark.

Develop redundant systems. Facility managers should evaluate their mission-critical power systems for single points of failure and, when appropriate, eliminate those single points of failure through the use of redundant systems.

Maintain critical equipment. The importance of properly maintaining mission-critical systems cannot be overstated. Facility managers should examine every component in the mission-critical infrastructure and determine its operational readiness. In addition, facility managers should develop a detailed maintenance plan for each item, and then it should be implemented and understood by all mission-critical stakeholders.

Install TVSS protection. During a severe geomagnetic storm utilities attempting to prevent a complete blackout may have to switch their substations extensively. This switching may create harmful transient voltages, which can be fed to the mission-critical facility. All critical loads and all loads that support critical loads (such as critical HVAC systems) should be protected by at least two levels of transient voltage surge suppression (TVSS). TVSS systems should be used at the service entrance level and at the branch circuit level or point of application level.

Pay attention to the space weather. Facility managers should monitor the three-day space-weather forecast, prepared jointly by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/forecast.html.

Develop an elevated operational posture. The mission-critical team can take on an elevated operational posture in the event of an impending geomagnetic storm. This operational posture should identify key personnel, identify key maintenance vendors, and establish protocols for communication in the event that normal communication systems are unavailable or compromised.

Summary

Many mission-critical professionals have never had to consider the potentially catastrophic effects of a major geomagnetic storm. With the announcement that Solar Cycle 24 has started and that this cycle is predicted to be the strongest in 50 years, there is a potential perfect storm on the horizon. This perfect storm is formed by the confluence of an aging, overburdened electrical system stretched to its failure point and a forecast for the fiercest solar storms in 50 years. The clock is ticking and solar max 24 is 2-3 short years away. Now is the time for mission critical infrastructure professionals to harden their facilities against the dangers of space weather by reinforcing the best practices and preventative strategies.