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The Nation Prepares for Extreme Space Weather

Aurora or “northern lights” are the result of magnetic storms. Credit: Getty Images

A severe solar storm could disrupt the nation’s power grid for months, potentially leading to widespread blackouts. Resulting damage and disruption for such an event could cost more than $1 trillion, with a full recovery time taking months to years, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Today marks a significant advancement towards improving our nation’s preparedness for extreme space weather events. A newly published National Space Weather Strategy identifies high-level priorities and goals for the nation, while an accompanying Action Plan outlines how federal agencies will implement the strategy. These documents were released by the White House’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).

USGS scientists provide a unique role in exploring space weather by monitoring activity on the Earth’s surface. This work is critical to protecting our nation as the surface where we live and where most of our modern infrastructure is located. The USGS was also one of the key leaders in developing the newly released strategic and action plans and will play an essential role in achieving the outlined goals.

Need for a Plan

While major geomagnetic storms are rare, with only a few recorded per century, there is significant potential for large-scale impacts when they do occur. Extreme space weather can be viewed as hazards for the economy and national security. These events can affect the operation of technological systems that are important modern society, and so have significant consequences for our lives on Earth.

In addition to electric-power grids, space weather can interfere with radio communications, GPS systems, satellites and directional drilling for oil and gas. Understanding the hazards posed by space weather is one of the top priorities in the new strategy.

Types of “Space Weather”

Everyone is familiar with weather systems like rain, wind and snow. But the space environment surrounding the Earth can also have a “weather” of sorts. The Sun’s behavior changes over time and this can cause disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, including occasional magnetic storms.

How do magnetic storms occur? The Sun is always emitting a wind of electrically charged particles, but when a large sunspot emerges on the face of the Sun, there is an increased chance for abrupt emission of strong solar wind. When this happens, a magnetic storm is the result. An intense magnetic storm can affect many technological systems. In particular, storms can overload and interfere with the operation electric-power grids on the Earth, sometimes causing blackouts.

It is during magnetic storms that beautiful aurora borealis — or “northern lights” — are visible at high latitudes. While mostly harmless, this is an indication that hazardous charged particles have been activated in our atmosphere. The lights occur as a result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the Sun. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding.

Coordinated Effort

In November 2014, the NSTC established the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force, and its charter directed the development of a National Space Weather Strategy. This was a multi-agency effort, engaging those who are part of the National Space Weather Program (NSWP). The NSWP coordinates the work of the many federal agencies, including the USGS.

A schematic depiction of coronal mass ejection headed toward the Earth and its surrounding magnetosphere. Credit: NASA

A schematic depiction of coronal mass ejection headed toward the Earth and its surrounding magnetosphere. Credit: NASA

Key USGS Responsibilities in the Action Plan

Existing space weather data and statistics are not robust, highlighting the need for enhanced monitoring and scientifically based scenarios. Science is essential to understand these events and mitigate the impacts, which can have global significance and repercussions.

The USGS Geomagnetism Program has a history dedicated to monitoring and studying the Earth’s dynamic magnetic field. The USGS has stepped up to the plate to lead, co-lead or contribute to 22 actions. Among these are:

  • Lead the development of new benchmarks for geoelectric fields that are induced inside the Earth during magnetic storms. These benchmarks will serve as input for the electric-power grid industry in creating engineering standards, developing vulnerability assessments, establishing thresholds for action, developing effective mitigation procedures and practices and enhancing response planning.
  • Expand long-term ground-based geomagnetic monitoring (using magnetometers) at new observatories and initiate geoelectric monitoring (by measuring ground voltages) at some existing observatories.
  • Estimate the electrical conductivity of the Earth’s crust and lithosphere by performing magnetotelluric surveys of the United States through temporary deployments of sensor systems.
  • Construct models of the Earth’s electrical conductivity and make assessments of potential hazards following magnetic storms.
  • Increase engagement with the international community, improving access to and sharing of global data and monitoring systems.

Start with USGS Science

The USGS Geomagnetism Program monitors variations in the Earth’s magnetic field through a network of 14 ground-based observatories around the United States and its territories. USGS scientists monitor the geomagnetic field every single second throughout the country. The USGS observatory data are used to calculate magnetic storm intensity.

USGS scientists conduct research into the physical causes and effects of magnetic storms, and they develop products useful for real-time situational awareness and to assess the hazardous effects of magnetic storms. The USGS is involved with making maps of magnetic activity, which are derived from data we acquire from ground-based observatories. In addition, USGS scientists are mapping the nature of the Earth’s lithosphere to construct maps of geomagnetic hazards.

Domestically, the USGS works cooperatively with government partners within the NSWP. For example, USGS observatory data are used by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force 557th Weather Wing for issuing geomagnetic warnings and forecasts. Internationally, the USGS magnetic observatory network is itself part of the global INTERMAGNET network.

Video: USGS Scientists Discuss Space Weather Research

Watch a video with USGS scientists to learn more about solar storms and relevant research underway.

Learn More

  • Explore how solar storms may have been used to pay tribute to the American Civil War’s end.
  • Learn how the USGS is working with the oil and gas industry to use the Earth’s magnetic field to increase oilfield productivity.

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